'When You Finish Saving The World': Do Satirical Coming-of-Age Films Ever Work?
Actor and writer Jesse Eisenberg, best known for his uncanny Mark Zuckerburg impression and notoriously fast-paced speech, embarks upon his first foray in the director’s chair with When You Finish Saving The World, a coming-of-age dramedy released in late January. Set in the drearily desaturated landscape of suburban Indiana, the film follows the turbulent relationship between Ziggy (Finn Wolfhard), a high school student absorbed by his online streaming career, and his passively reprimanding mother, Evelyn (Julianne Moore), who manages a local women’s shelter. Mother and son mutually tune each other out, instead seeking solace in their clumsy pursuits. Though promising in its trailer and first act, the film quickly unravels due to pressing character and tone issues, leaving only a dull impact at its finish.
Ziggy is the archetypal teenage micro-influencer, constantly inserting his 20,000 Hi Hat followers (the film’s replacement for Twitch) into conversation, much to the chagrin of everyone around him. He saunters through life in a fog of ignorant bliss—guitar case lazily slung over one shoulder, his branded beanie tucked firmly over his messy curls. In addition to his incessant self-promotion, Ziggy is eager to impress his crush Lila (Alisha Boe), a passionate political classmate. He tries to match her devotion by butting into conversation and going to the activist art show she frequents, but his attempts are woefully disingenuous and often violently embarrassing.
Meanwhile, Evelyn is the perfect activist on paper, but she cannot genuinely connect with the women she houses in her shelter. Taken by the kindness of Kyle (Billy Bryk), the son of a new resident at the facility, she treats his life like a new philanthropy project. Evelyn presses Kyle to apply for college scholarships instead of continuing his current job at a car repair shop, a position she deems lowly and unfit, though Kyle himself is content. In this way, Ziggy and his mother act as unfortunate mirrors of each other. Both are infatuated by the ideals of who they would like to be, using others in their lives—namely, Lila and Kyle—to project their desires. This proves to be a failure, as their respective self-absorption leads them to border on delusion instead.
Ziggy and Evelyn are deeply problematic characters. The two are perpetually at odds, united only in their shared narcissism. Here, it is crucial to distinguish between flawed and irredeemable characters. It is fine—in fact, necessary—to write the protagonist of a coming-of-age film as imperfect. However, they must remain somewhat sympathetic for the story to make sense. In WYFSTW, Ziggy and Evelyn are persistently insufferable, and the film never gives viewers a reason to root for them. Wolfhard and Moore try their best to carry the film's emotional core, but they are ultimately hindered by the limiting parameters of the characters, despite their strong performances. The film attempts to redeem the two with a reconciliatory scene towards the very end, but it arrives too late, and the moment feels both contrived and unearned.
Much of Ziggy and Evelyn’s unlikability can be attributed to the extreme nature of their characterization. The two feel more like caricatures than real people: Ziggy is mind-numbingly ignorant, a familiar adult representation of a social media-obsessed 17-year-old. Evelyn is the epitomical out-of-touch activist, every action filtered through a set of performative ideals. There is an utter lack of subtlety throughout all their interactions. As Evelyn laments about Ziggy’s lack of political fervor, insisting he was supposed to be “one of the good ones,” the effect is more eye roll-inducing than impactful. This epidemic extends to the broader cast of supporting characters as well. Kyle is essentially a perfect son, a far too blatant foil to Ziggy. Ziggy’s friend Jackie is given a measly five lines and spends his screen time trailing behind the protagonist on a skateboard with a joint. The combined effect of these flat, one-note characters is profoundly damning, and a few scenes almost feel as though they’ve been plucked out of an SNL skit.
And therein lies the critical issue plaguing this film: WYFSTW struggles to be both a satire on modern youth and delusional activists and a nuanced coming-of-age story. You cannot achieve graceful introspection in a character-driven story with cartoonishly conceived characters—the two are fundamentally incompatible. Caricatures are laughable, not sympathetic. In Eisenberg’s attempt to have his cake and eat it, too, he leaves viewers confused and uncomfortable. It is unclear whether viewers are supposed to be poking fun at these pretentious do-gooders or if they are supposed to be wishing the best for them. So, whether this film is meant to be primarily a satirical endeavor or a coming-of-age saga, it is not a very good example of either.
All that being said, WYFSTW is not entirely devoid of merit. The movie is undeniably well-shot. Cinematographer Benjamin Loeb, who previously worked on Kogonada’s After Yang, adeptly captures the story’s bluntly naturalistic—albeit slightly boring—atmosphere through 16mm film and yellowish color grading. Emile Mosseri, a seasoned composer on A24 projects, brings an interesting dimension to the movie through his binary score. Half of the film’s music is synthy and electronic, representing Ziggy’s eclecticism; the other half is a classical mesh of piano and strings, representing Evelyn’s rigidity. The ebb and flow of these two musical tones reflect the dynamic between mother and son, a clever storytelling tactic that underlies the rest of the film.
WYFSTW is, at the very least, honest and earnest. It is infused with Eisenberg’s particular brand of idiosyncratic sensibilities. His influence is felt in nearly every beat of the film—Ziggy’s dialogue, the moments of humor, and the rhythm of scenes. Likewise, his debut is also an amalgamation of all the harshest criticisms levied by non-fans of Eisenberg: wordy but whiny, reflective but ultimately insufferable.
Sabrina Mei is a sophomore in the MSB studying Marketing, Analytics, and Film & Media Studies. She is one of the Executive Editors for the INDY.