Nobody uses the term generation gap anymore, but the problems it refers to are eternal—and they’re the core of When You Finish Saving the World, Jesse Eisenberg’s debut as a writer-director. Finn Wolfhard is Ziggy Katz, a teenage singer-songwriter who’s a mini-sensation in his corner of the internet, cultivating an audience of loyal followers with his folky songs about youthful love and angst. But his mother Evelyn (Julianne Moore), the harried founder and manager of a women’s shelter, downgrades both his enterprise and his talents, and his father Roger (Jay O. Sanders) is a checked-out academic type whose nose is always buried in a book or a magazine. The clash between mother and son is particularly acute: Evelyn just wishes her son were somehow different, in ways she can’t even define.
When a particularly smart and sensitive teenager, Billy Bryk’s Kyle, moves into the shelter with his mother, Evelyn takes him on as a personal project, encouraging him to apply for college scholarships even though he has his sights on being a mechanic, a job he’s exceptionally good at. Ziggy is so frustrated with his mother that he doesn’t even realize he’s been shunted aside; he’s also distracted by his crush on a schoolmate, Alicia Boe’s Lila, a budding political activist—she’s a passionate yet plodding spinner of rhetoric, no match for the awkward romantic poet in him.
These are the gentle, interwoven tensions that hold When You Finish Saving the World together, albeit just barely. There are times when the movie leans a little too hard on Moore as the chilly, clueless mom, a woman who still sees herself as an idealistic hippie though she’s the exact opposite of laid-back: even the way she swirls her Malbec in the goblet, unwinding after a stressful day at the shelter, is uptight. Yet Eisenberg is a thoughtful filmmaker, devoted to showing his characters as multi-dimensional, flawed human beings. This is a modest film, but not a superficial one. The point, maybe, is that parents and children sometimes have to lose each other for a while before finding accord. The space between them isn’t so much a gap but a cycle of re-connection, played out one generation after another.