Jesse Eisenberg’s directorial debut is an incredibly romantic film. It’s about a boy who wants to be sensible. And a woman who wants to be sensitive. It just so happens that the two are related by blood. This is a mother-son love story…except it isn’t as creepy as I just made it sound. A dysfunctional relationship is a dysfunctional relationship; the identity is (almost) incidental. The boy, Ziggy Katz (Finn Wolfhard), performs original folk-rock songs for a huge online fan base. He writes about feelings, crushes, school goodbyes and other teenage things. The woman, Evelyn Katz (Julianne Moore), runs a shelter for survivors of domestic abuse. She is a surgeon of the soul, making sure to rehabilitate families without getting attached to them. In other words, he tweets but she does.
Eisenberg, who’s made a remarkable career out of playing the nerdy and needy misfit, constructs a narrative out of hidden complexes. Ziggy is dismissive of his mother and her grating nobility and knowledge, but in school he falls for the resident activist, Lila. He wants to sound woke and smart like Lila; he wants her validation. He knows she stands for all the things he should care for, and his imposter syndrome makes him act on it. Similarly, Evelyn finds a promising teen at her shelter and gets obsessed with his future, almost as though she were hoping to turn him into the Ziggy she always wanted. Every time she argues with Ziggy, she finds solace in the possibilities at work. The two behave like they’re cheating on one another, blinded by a new sense of passion and purpose. When they fight, it’s bitter: he mocks the money she makes and she taunts his songwriting skills. He lies about his post-school jaunts, she lies about her post-work dinners. Mother and son don’t know it, but their “unhappy marriage” is driving them to find emotional surrogates for each other.
What’s terrific about this film is that it upends our perception of coming-of-age dramedies. A child rebelling against uptight parents is the recipe for an artist origin story. A woman disenchanted by a distant gen-z kid is the recipe for a social-justice origin story. Too many movies paint individualism as a feel-good triumph. But few movies acknowledge that dependence is the cornerstone of evolution. Even fewer admit that toxic love is salvageable – and that acceptance is an accumulative emotion. Ziggy symbolises a generation that knows too much and too little at once, while Evelyn is emblematic of a time when knowing better was enough. They don’t seem compatible in any way, but it takes good writing to convince us that compatibility and conflict can mean the same thing. One cannot exist without the other.
Julianne Moore is, not for the first time, pitch-perfect as the woman whose spiral is struggling to be adult-like. She doesn’t overplay the ticks either, allowing Evelyn to take us to the brink of darkness before yanking us back. She also makes it easy to believe that her hatred is just a lesser form of love. Finn Wolfhard, too, delivers a remarkably likable turn as a kid whose world is as big as his head. He is funny and sad, ignorant and endearing, almost like a teenage version of The Office’s Michael Scott. Without the crutch of (tangible) catharsis, Wolfhard’s performance doubles up as the subtext in a script that – not surprisingly – gives its actors the power to create.
The film somewhat reminded me of my equation with my father. We’ve had our problems – he’s been the wise reader and politically aware sponge, while I’ve been the one who relies on instinct and emotional intelligence. At some level, I never took to books and general knowledge because I probably didn’t want to become him. Yet, some of my most rewarding relationships have been with avid readers and music lovers. I’ve wondered if he, too, showed greater interest in the intellectual growth of other young people. Over time, I suppose he’s learned to accept my manner of thinking – or at least I’d like to imagine that, given that he’s followed my writing with utmost pride. And I suppose I’ve learned to understand his thinking, given that a lot of my pieces today contain political undertones.
They say personal is political, but perceptive movies like these interpret it as: love is the legislature of respect. Like the film itself, the title reads like an incomplete phrase of resentment: When you finish saving the world, (how about coming for me?). Good films complete the phrase, but the great ones complete the resentment.