Evelyn’s teenage son Ziggy (Finn Wolfhard) is awkward and arrogant (a terrible combo, although not so out of the ordinary). He has no friends, and lives for his social media channel, where he performs songs on livestream to a worldwide audience. He keeps tracks of subscribers and up-votes and likes, throwing it in the face of anyone who dares to not take him seriously. His parents, played by Moore and the wonderful Jay O. Sanders, are intellectuals with easily mockable pretensions. Ziggy’s dad asks his son about the music he’s writing, barely waits for the answer before cautioning him not to play “rhythm and blues,” because “Amiri Baraka was quite clear on this.” Ziggy doesn’t know who Amiri Baraka is and doesn’t care. Evelyn wonders what happened to her little “ally” son, the child she took to marches, who used to sing protest songs on his little plastic guitar. Ziggy treats her with open contempt. She tolerates it, and cries in the car as she drives to work.
A little of this goes a long way, and there’s a lot of it in “When You Finish Saving the World.” When Ziggy develops a crush on Lila (Alisha Boe), a politically-minded girl at school, he decides to “become political” in order to impress her, or at least be able to keep up with her in conversation. Lila is amazingly tolerant of this weird kid following her around, trying to “be political” with her. Meanwhile, Evelyn re-directs her thwarted mother love onto Kyle (Billy Bryk), who recently moved into the shelter with his mom. Kyle is a good kid, polite, and responsible, everything Ziggy is not. Kyle works in a body shop, and he enjoys it, but Evelyn can’t hide her middle-class liberal-snooty-horror at this job and starts blabbering about how maybe he could get a scholarship to Oberlin, even though he clearly doesn’t want it. What is wrong with working on cars, Evelyn? Evelyn’s blind spot again. She thinks it would be a “waste.” Her behavior tilts into downright creepy, just as Ziggy’s behavior towards Lila borders on the creepy.
The whole movie is about projecting your own needs onto other people, seeing in them what you want to see, or seeing in them a skewed mirror of your own hopes for yourself—ideals war with reality. Evelyn cares for the abused women in the shelter but can’t talk to them without condescension. She works to help others but can’t connect with her son. Ziggy says he wants to learn about politics, but only to profit from it on his live stream. He has a platform. He could save the world!
Is this satire? It’s hard to tell. The characters are broadly drawn and mostly broadly played, so much so that the film plays like a skit about clueless do-gooder liberals. Lila and Kyle are the only characters who seem connected to the world and themselves. Their baffled, almost embarrassed responses when dealing with Ziggy and Evelyn’s projections onto them is understandable.