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  • Reviewed from the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. 

Stories about former radicals now married with children have often shown them hiding their past from the next generation or drumming it into the kids as dogma, while When You Finish Saving The World takes the less common but highly plausible route of wondering if the parents might just become something of a nightmare. Directed and written by Jesse Eisenberg, and expanded from his own audio drama of the same name released online in 2020, the film’s deftly pointed comedy of family dysfunction is built on a generational fracture between mother and son, and on the even more fragile fault line between 1980s progressives and the current TikTok generation. The two versions of the Left sit around the same dinner table and seem to understand each other not at all.

The older generation, Evelyn (Julianne Moore), works at a shelter for abused women, where the film makes it plain that her empathy and compassion for the unhappy wives who turn to her for help coexists with an inability to transmit much warmth to anyone else. Attempting to strike up a casual conversation with the shelter’s receptionist – an effort which makes Evelyn look as if she might pull a muscle – she comes across as so pursed that the employee assumes it’s a redundancy talk.

Evelyn certainly doesn’t transmit much warmth to her son Ziggy (Finn Wolfhard), whose passion is performing his own guitar songs to adoring thousands on the Hi-Hat social media platform. Mother and son are not on the same network: he regards her beloved classical music as elitist white art, while she interrupts his streaming sessions once too often and finds him rigging up a red Do Not Enter beacon big enough for a submarine. Caught in the middle, Evelyn’s husband Roger (Jay O. Sanders) is only an outline in the story, making a small-c conservative point about Ziggy’s possible cultural appropriation before having the things that matter to him be completely ignored by both wife and son.

The disconnect between Evelyn and Ziggy is indeed political, and her waspish disappointment in him is the hangover from the failure of her progressive Left to achieve its goals, a sour defeat now radiating in all directions. She always wanted to become editor of Rolling Stone, but now says she’s embarrassed to have wanted anything other than to help people at ground level.

Meanwhile Ziggy and the Hi-Hat crowd might not have a progressive Leftism between them: “I think the world would be a better place if people just chilled out,” he says. But then Ziggy becomes entranced by classmate Lila (Alisha Boe) and his political antennae twitch, along with other muscles. As he masturbates over a piece of Lila’s handwriting, director Eisenberg adds to the proceedings with a visual of a lava lamp’s waxy contents blobbing vertically upwards; the film, it should be noted, is very funny. Although Eisenberg directs the dialogue-focused story without adding much by way of visual flamboyance, the faces of Moore and Boe speak volumes. Ziggy plays Lila a song he has created by setting her poem to a neutrally folky guitar tune, and the camera catches her looking at him much as she would a kitten successfully operating a door handle.

Lila is already an activist and performer of agitprop poetry about climate change at radical arts evenings – gatherings of well-meaning youngsters whom the film regards with even-handed understanding, as opposed to indicating that this lot are actually getting anything done. Ziggy’s awakening coincides with Evelyn fastening onto Kyle (Billy Bryk), the son of a hostel resident, a young man who seems to be much more the kind of progeny that Evelyn had in mind. Hiding this disconcertingly painful (for the audience) business from her family involves a certain amount of farce, as when Evelyn rather helplessly takes a cooked dinner over to Kyle for no real reason, before having to bring it all back home again with excuses.

Equivocal about the ability of the Left to focus on the big things, the film catches the current political mood from an oblique angle. The title is as sarcastic as it sounds, the words no doubt ringing in Evelyn’s head all the time, although the film ends with the song “Union Maid” by Woody Guthrie. Any suggestion that Evelyn has undergone a political reactivation seems a long shot, but the film is warm enough to think that such things are possible.