It’s fitting that Jesse Eisenberg’s often smart but far too obvious and ultimately flat “When You Finish Saving the World” is hitting theaters just as the Sundance Film Festival is opening, for this is a very Sundance-y film: a small and precisely calculated character study about an upper middle-class family that would consider itself to be enlightened and engaged with the world but actually is wallowing in narcissism.
In fact, “When You Finish …,” based on Eisenberg’s audio play of the same name, debuted last year at Sundance, which often serves as a showcase for actors making their directorial debuts, e.g., Rebecca Hall (“Passing”), Bo Burnham (“Eighth Grade”) and Emerald Fennell (“Promising Young Woman.”) Set in an unnamed college town in Indiana, “When You Finish Saving the World” stars Finn Wolfhard (“Stranger Things”) as Ziggy, a teenage viral video singer who has 20,000 followers (as he keeps reminding people) and has grown up in a liberal albeit chilly home with his parents Evelyn, who works at a women’s shelter even though she seems unfamiliar with the concept of empathy, and Roger (Jay O. Sanders), an academic who is always buried in a book or a newspaper and is prone to lecturing Ziggy about how it would be wrong for a white suburban kid to play the blues.
Not that Ziggy is into the blues. He offers to play a song for his parents, but they’re not interested. Nobody in this family is interested in anything but themselves. With Roger relegated to the background, Ziggy and Evelyn pursue twin and parallel obsessions. Evelyn becomes consumed with mentoring Kyle (Billy Bryk), the teenage son of a woman who has come to the shelter. She sees great potential in this young man and tries to get him to apply to Oberlin College as she condescendingly scoffs at his plan to keep working in his father’s auto repair shop. (Scenes in which Evelyn gives Kyle a hat once worn by her son and takes him to an Ethiopian restaurant to broaden his horizons are cringe-inducing and heavy-handed. We get it. Evelyn sees in Kyle what she doesn’t see in her own son.)
Meanwhile, Ziggy becomes a borderline stalker in his pursuit of his classmate Lila (Alisha Boe), an activist student who meets with like-minded locals for painfully pretentious poetry slam meetings. Even though Ziggy grew up going to marches and protests, he couldn’t care less about that stuff — but he refashions his twee, indie-folk music into pseudo protest fare in an effort to impress Lila.
It’s a toss-up as to who is more clueless: Evelyn, who races around town in a cartoonishly tiny Smart Car with classical music blaring and seems filled with rage and ill-suited to her job, or Ziggy, who is so utterly self-consumed he doesn’t he realize he’s horrible to his parents and a complete phony with Lila and her friends. Wolfhard does solid work as a doppelganger for Eisenberg, but the great Julianne Moore delivers a surprisingly one-note performance as the shrill Evelyn, and Jay O. Sanders isn’t given enough to do to make Roger seem like a plausible presence. Eisenberg is a fine writer and shows clear promise as a visual storyteller, but it becomes a chore to spend even an 88-minute movie with his increasingly off-putting characters. We know they’re not supposed to be likable, but they should be more interesting.