Producers: Dave McCary, Emma Stone and Ali Herting   Director: Jesse Eisenberg   Screenplay: Jesse Eisenberg   Cast: Julianne Moore, Finn Wolfhard, Alisha Boe, Jay O. Sanders, Billy Bryk, Eleonore Hendricks and Jack Justice   Distributor: A24

Grade: B-

Whether you take it as a drama with a satirical edge of a satire with dramatic underpinnings, actor Jesse Eisenberg’s first film as a writer-director is a prickly little portrait of characters it’s impossible to love but hard not to have compassion for.  An expansion of his own 2020 audiobook, “When You Finish Saving the World” is, like the actor’s own usual onscreen persona, rather awkward and irritating but with intelligence beneath a goofy exterior.

The film is centered on the Katzes, an Indiana family of three.  Father Roger (Jay O. Sanders) is a person of consequence at the local university, where he’s just been awarded a promotion with a celebration to mark his ascent.  But he seems to have little real understanding of his wife Evelyn (Julianne Moore) and son Ziggy (Finn Wolfhard).  His conversations with them are at best strained—at one point he asks his son whether he’s happy, only to interrupt the boy’s answer by informing him that he’s reading an article on teen suicide that puts the teen in a vulnerable statistical group—and he usually flees upstairs in their claustrophobic home to read rather than spend too much time with them.

Not that Evelyn and Ziggy are easy to deal with.  She’s a caricature of the liberal do-gooder, a tense, stunted soul who in her younger days frequented marches and protests, dreaming of becoming the editor of Rolling Stone, but instead is reduced to keeping her dreams alive as the manager of the local women’s shelter.  Even here, however, she’s at a loss when it comes to human connection, barely able to communicate with the staff except for criticizing them for an over-loud birthday lunch and treating the residents with businesslike efficiency; her friendly interactions always have a snippy edge. 

Her relationship with Ziggy is even worse.  The gawky kid is a complete disappointment, evincing no interest in—or knowledge about—the causes that animate her.  She used to take him to all her activist events when he was a child, and he played the protest songs on the little plastic guitar she bought him.  Ziggy still plays guitar—a real one, now—but only to stream himself performing his songs—which he describes as “classic folk rock with some alternative influences,” to Roger’s expression of incomprehension—to a modest but devoted tween fan base.  His only concern is to increase his number of followers and enhance the “likes” that earn him some cash, which leads Evelyn to excoriate him in one painful exchange for failing to grow into a copy of her progressive self-image.  “You were going to be one of the good ones,” she bitterly remarks.  (In response he complains of her interrupting his streaming sessions—he even puts up a flashing red “recording studio” sign outside his bedroom door—and criticizes her for enjoying music by dead white males like Tchaikovsky.)

Perhaps it’s predictable that Evelyn becomes interested in another boy Ziggy’s age—Kyle (Billy Bryk), the thoughtful, caring son of Angie (Eleonore Hendricks), a woman who’s fled to the shelter from her abusive husband.  Seeing the boy as the kind of teen she wishes Ziggy had grown into (and perhaps attracted to him as well, though that’s never made explicit), she undertakes to mold him into what she would like her son to become, inducing him to do volunteer work at the shelter, introducing him to Ethiopian cuisine to broaden his horizons, and, most importantly, suggesting that he abandon his plan to work at his dad’s auto-repair shop and instead go to college, shepherding the application procedure with such obsessiveness that Angie grows alarmed.  Of course, Kyle’s wishes take second place to hers, and it’s left to us to understand that he might be too intimidated by her control over his and his mother’s ability to stay at the shelter to tell her what they are.    

Ziggy, meanwhile, seems to have but one friend at school—another misfit (Jack Justice).  But coed Lila (Alisa Boe) catches his eye; the fact that she’s pretty is one reason, but so is the fact that she’s passionate about the world’s problems and super articulate (or as Ziggy might say, using the invented slang in which he speaks via Eisenberg, “tera-articulate”) in discoursing about them.  Perhaps in part he’s conscious of his emptiness in such matters and wants to learn, but it appears that he’s mostly anxious to insert some hot-button issues into his songs to increase their ability to attract fans.  Lila’s tolerant of his puppy-dog attentions, even when he performs some of his bland pieces at the revolutionary open-mic sessions she frequents to read her poetry, until he makes clear his mercenary motives.

Will mother and son haltingly reach out to one another again as their different hopes are dashed?  Eisenberg leaves that possibility hanging with an ending that’s surprisingly touching.

This is a very small-scaled film situated in a thoroughly unremarkable setting, the confined feel expressed well in the very (or “tera”) naturalistic production design by Meredith Lippencott and stark cinematography by Benjamin Loeb, which feature no frills.  Sara Shaw’s editing allows for grace notes to register while hewing to a crisp eighty-eight minutes (with credits), while Emile Mosseri’s music, along with Ziggy’s songs partially improvised by Wolfhard, adds to the mood.

The characters are not the sort that allow the actors to be expansive, but within the limitations of the script Moore, excising any trace of glamor from Evelyn, and Wolfhard, exuding depression except when Ziggy’s music (and, briefly, Lila’s friendship) bring out some enthusiasm, embody the distant mother and son with precision.  Sanders is likewise constrained, but applies his usual flair to the few opportunities he’s offered—not just that uncomfortable conversation with Ziggy, but a scene in which Roger shows a rare burst of anger over Evelyn and Ziggy’s failure to attend his fete at the college.  Bryk and Boe both impressively embody Kyle and Lila’s more normal contrast to Evelyn and Ziggy.

It would be a stretch to suggest that “When You Finish Saving the World” is a natural crowd-pleaser—it’s too arch and self-consciously literary for that.  (Eisenberg often contributes to The New Yorker, after all.)  But its own focus on a single family cannily reflects its basic suggestion that when trying to do good it might be wise to consider those within your immediate reach as well as the multitudes beyond it.