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FilmWatch Weekly: Bad parents abound in ‘Saving the World’ and ‘The Son’; Portland Critics’ year-end awards

Generationally speaking, what we've got here is failure to communicate. And "Everything Everywhere" scores big with the critics circle.

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Finn Wolfhard and Julianne Moore in “When You Finish Saving the World.”

Kids these days. They spend more time on their screens than interacting with the world around them. They take their material good fortune for granted. And they don’t really seem to be interested in making the world a better place.

Take Ziggy Katz, the Gen-Z paragon played by “Stranger Things” star Finn Wolfhard in When You Finish Saving the World. He’s far too proud of having 20,000 followers for the livestreamed performances of his unremarkable emo tunes. He treats his well-meaning, if clumsy, parents with contempt. And the only thing that prompts him to attempt political consciousness is the desire to impress a pretty girl. To make matters worse, he’s dead-set on popularizing the prefix “tera-” as synonymous with “super-.” Something great is “tera-lit.” It gets old quickly.

Where, one might wonder, does Ziggy get his narcissistic tendencies? Well, in the film’s first scene, Ziggy tells his mother Evelyn (Julianne Moore) that he’ll be ready for a ride to school in five seconds. She counts to five and then heads out the front door without him. Evelyn, who works at a shelter for abused women and children, clearly has her own issues, including an inability to appreciate her son for who he is.

When You Finish Saving the World is actor Jesse Eisenberg’s first feature as writer and director, and while it fails to completely cohere, it does conjure a pair of clueless but oddly endearing characters trying to make connections in the only ways they know how.

For Ziggy, this involves the aforementioned pretty girl, a committed activist and poet named Lila (Alisha Boe). His infatuation prompts him to attend poetry slams and try, with little success, to formulate political opinions. But he finds that depth and empathy can be extremely difficult to fake.

Evelyn’s object of attention is more problematic. She develops a maternal crush on Kyle (Billy Bryk), the teenaged son of a new arrival at the shelter where she works. He’s everything Ziggy isn’t: sensitive, polite, motivated, handy. Evelyn’s savior complex spurs her to insert herself into his life—trying to get him into college despite his disinterest, taking him out for secret Ethiopian dinners, and otherwise usurping his actual mother’s role.

What makes both mother and son such frustrating and fascinating characters is that they are so resistant to learning from their mistakes. Neither one can take a hint, to an almost sociopathic degree. This is something Eisenberg knows a bit about, having played his share of differently wired characters starting with Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network, and you can tell that he enjoys trying to figure out what makes these folks tick.

The real victim here, it must be said, is Roger (Jay O. Sanders), the long-suffering husband and father in the equation. He’s some sort of academic, off-screen and uninvolved in most of the drama. When his wife and son both neglect to attend an important scenario, though, he complains about living with two narcissists. “What does that say about you?” retorts Ziggy.

“That I’m unlucky” he responds. Unlike Roger, and fortunately for us, we only have to put up with them for eighty-two minutes. (Opens Friday, Jan. 20, at Living Room Theaters and the Laurelhurst Theater.)

***

A couple of years ago Anthony Hopkins pulled off a well-deserved upset and won the Best Actor Oscar for the title role in The Father. The film also marked an impressive film-directing debut for French playwright Florian Zeller, who adapted his own play about memory loss and disorientation in impressively cinematic fashion.

Zeller’s follow-up, The Son, is based on another of his successful stage plays. (He also wrote The Mother, which starred Isabelle Huppert when it ran Off-Broadway in 2019.) Unfortunately, all the poignancy, invention, and dramatic heft of The Father has escaped Zeller this time around, resulting in an anemic, borderline-offensive melodrama that threatens to be the feel-bad movie of the year.

Hugh Jackman plays Peter, a wealthy workaholic who left his wife Kate (Laura Dern) for a younger woman, Beth (Vanessa Kirby), with whom he now has an infant son. Peter has another son, however: teenaged Nicolas (Zen McGrath), who lives with his mother but has become more than she can handle.

Nicolas has missed school for a month, and acts out in unpredictable and potentially dangerous ways. When Kate asks for help, Peter reluctantly agrees for the boy to move in with him, and tries to establish boundaries and expectations. But nothing seems to work. Nicolas confesses to having dark thoughts and engages in self-harm. Peter and Kate seem powerless to help.

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Except, and this is where the movie goes seriously off the rails, they’re NOT powerless to help. It takes forever for them to get the kid into therapy, and even then there’s no real discussion of using medication or more severe treatments to address what is clearly a case of clinical depression.

In other words, if the inability of Julianne Moore’s character in When You Finish Saving the World to engage meaningfully with her teenaged son makes you grind your teeth in frustration, the level of neglect demonstrated by Peter and Kate will probably result in permanent damage to your enamel. Which would be fine if The Son was intended as an indictment of their inability to face reality, but it’s not.

In flashbacks to a family vacation when Nicolas was much younger, we see the happy, spirited boy that Kate and Peter are trying to recapture. In a conversation that Peter has with his own father (Hopkins, providing a link between the two films), we see how male incapacity for intimacy is passed down through generations. But neither of these factors excuses the fault of parents who refuse to acknowledge the seriousness of their child’s disease. There’s a lot of trauma in The Son, but much of it could have been avoided. For instance, it’s very easy to avoid the trauma of watching this waste of acting talent—just don’t do it. (Opens Friday, Jan. 20, at Regal Fox Tower.)

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The Portland Film Critics Society (of which yours truly is a member) announced its 2022 awards this week. The big winner, unsurprisingly, was Everything Everywhere All at Once, which won seven prizes: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress (Michelle Yeoh), Best Supporting Actor (Ke Huy Quan), Best Supporting Actress (Stephanie Hsu), Best Comedy Feature, and Best Production Design.

Other awards went to Colin Farrell as Best Actor for The Banshees of Inisherin, the Portland-made Guillermo Del Toro’s Pinocchio for Best Animated Feature and Best Score, and Glass Onion for Best Ensemble Cast and Best Screenplay. With Academy Award nominations due to be revealed on Tuesday, January 24, it will be interesting to see how they match up. For the full list, including all the nominees, visit www.portlandcritics.com.

Marc Mohan moved to Portland from Wisconsin in 1991, and has been exploring and contributing to the city’s film culture almost ever since. As the former manager of the landmark independent video store Trilogy, and later the owner of Portland’s first DVD-only rental spot, Video Vérité, he immersed himself in the cinematic education that led to his position as a freelance film critic for The Oregonian for nearly twenty years. Once it became apparent that “newspaper film critic” was no longer a sustainable career option, Mohan pursued a new path, enrolling in the Northwestern School of Law at Lewis & Clark College in the fall of 2017. He can’t quite seem to break the habit, though, of loving and writing about movies.

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