It comes as a surprise to learn that “When You Finish Saving the World,” a new film directed by Jesse Eisenberg, is also the first film directed by Jesse Eisenberg. Really? I could have sworn he’d taken charge before. He’s one of those actors who become de-facto auteurs, imbuing a story so richly with their manners, or their moods, that it feels like their own creation. In Eisenberg’s case, “The Double” (2013), “Louder Than Bombs” (2015), and “The Art of Self-Defense” (2019), all of them made by other directors, are galvanized by his nervous electricity. As he stares at the surrounding characters, furrowing his brow and twitching with unease, you can see their self-possession starting to waver. There you have it: Eisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle.

Although he doesn’t appear in the new movie, and delegates his staring duties to the camera, the principle is upheld. No one here could be accused, even temporarily, of contentment. Welcome to the Katz family, of Bloomington, Indiana—a huge and boisterous clan numbering precisely three. Sometimes they even talk at dinner. Roger (Jay O. Sanders) is the head of the household, but a severed head; seldom without a glass of wine, he prefers to slip upstairs, wise fellow, to read a book. Evelyn (Julianne Moore), his wife, runs a local women’s shelter. Completing the picture is their only child, Ziggy (Finn Wolfhard), aged seventeen, who hibernates in his room. There, facing his computer, he plays guitar and sings to a growing and, it must be said, undiscerning bunch of fans. Ziggy calls his music “classic folk rock with alternative influences.” “I don’t know what that means,” his father says. What exasperates Ziggy, apart from absolutely everything, is being interrupted by Evelyn while he’s live-streaming. “What’s ‘live-streaming’?” she asks. I was reminded of the mother from New Jersey, sublimely cited in the Onion, ten years ago, “who asked if the internet was as good as the online.”

Few zones have been more thoroughly scouted onscreen than the generation gap. There will always be rebels, with or without causes, as well as fears that the gap will widen into a ravine. Ziggy and Evelyn are different, perhaps, because of the urgency with which they seek amends for a lack of affection in the home. Ziggy falls for a girl at school, Lila (Alisha Boe), when he hears her read one of her poems. “It’s actually tera-sophisticated,” he says. “Thanks for the validation,” she replies. (Eisenberg has a keen ear for the patois. Ziggy’s most frequent term of praise is “lift.”) Having set the poem to music, which is cool, he then brags to Lila about making money from it. Not cool. His mother, meanwhile, develops an interest—at first kindly, then unhealthy—in a teen-ager, Kyle (Billy Bryk), the son of a woman who has arrived at the shelter after fleeing an abusive partner. So obsessed is Evelyn that she takes Kyle out for dinner at an Ethiopian place. It must be love.

If you are groaning in spirit after watching Florian Zeller’s “The Son,” which is now in wide release, you may be wondering, Why bother with yet another drama about wretched parents and their lonely offspring? Because, although “When You Finish Saving the World” is equally taut with unhappiness, it allows itself to be funny, in ways that are inconceivable to “The Son.” When Roger says to Ziggy, “I’m reading this fascinating article about teen suicide,” adding, “It’s highest in your specific age group,” you laugh at the breathtaking wrongness of the line. This being an Eisenberg project—he also wrote the screenplay—the laughter comes with a wince attached as standard, and there is barely a scene, in a film constructed from social awkwardness, when your nails aren’t digging into your palms. Kyle has a good job, working at a body shop, but Evelyn keeps egging him to try college. “It’s the only way to learn and to grow, to live a more examined life,” she declares, foisting her fancy-pants Socratic dreams on the poor kid. What if he just wants to examine the underside of a Buick?

“When You Finish Saving the World” is a small and cloistered work, it’s true, that seems to shrink into itself. Friends are thin on the ground, and it’s all too apt that Evelyn’s emotional peak consists of listening to Tchaikovsky in solitary confinement, at the wheel of her tiny red Smart car. Compare Mike Mills’s “20th Century Women” (2016), which also mapped the ambitions of a teen-ager and his progressive elders, but gave its dramatis personae far more room to roam, and less stifling air to breathe. What’s most likable—and, these days, most valuable—in both films is their urge to find comedy in political cravings. Hitherto, Ziggy hasn’t cared about climate change, being stuck in the landmass of his own head, but now he desperately wants to care, if only to curry favor with Lila, a more natural activist. His solution is to cook up a protest song, which involves strumming a single angry chord, over and over, and (the sweetest moment in the movie) consulting the Web to see what rhymes with “congressman.” Answer: “collagen, Jonathan, oxygen.” Go, Ziggy! Rage against the machine!

Then, there is Evelyn—a worthy addition to Julianne Moore’s gallery of well-meaning souls from whose existence the meaning has drained away, drop by drop. Nobody smiles like Moore, or compels us to ask, as she does, what kind of courage is required for the upkeep of a brave face. (How she would have flourished in the weepies of the late nineteen-thirties and early forties, which traded so lavishly in the polite suppression of pain.) Hence the sudden shock when, giving Ziggy a ride to school, she lays into him for not having inherited her political fire. “When you were a little boy, I brought you to every march, every protest,” she tells him. “You were going to be one of the good ones.” That’s a terrible thing to say to anyone, let alone your own child, and Evelyn knows it. As she drops Ziggy off and drives away, her eyes brim with tears behind her wire-rimmed spectacles, and we realize that this tera-smart, anxiety-fettered movie comes with a twist in the title. It is the mother, not her son, who never finished saving the world. Now she can hardly save herself.

The hero of Lukas Dhont’s new movie, “Close,” is a Belgian boy, four or five years younger than Ziggy, named Léo. He is played by Eden Dambrine—making his début—with startling intensity, and with a grace that seems more unconscious than cannily poised. Léo is blithe, blond, and fair of face. It’s a face that we are at leisure to observe, in searching closeups, though whether our search is gratified is another matter. Léo is at once open and closed, loath to divulge his secrets, even to himself, as he puts away childish things.

Léo’s best friend—almost his other half, you might say—is Rémi (Gustav De Waele). They bicycle to school together; they have regular sleepovers, dozing side by side in a shaft of blessed morning sunlight; and they race through a blur of blooms, pink and scarlet, shoulder-high, like time travellers who have landed in the midst of a Monet. (The wistful Rémi, indeed, never looks quite suited to the here and now, especially the now.) The blooms, we soon gather, are part of a flower farm run by Léo’s parents, but what Dhont is offering, as the boys run wild, is not so much a tour of a laborious business as a whiff of paradise.

We know that loss is coming, as it must. The laws of Arcady demand no less. A girl at school, quizzing Léo about his rapport with Rémi, describes them as a couple. She’s being more curious than unkind, but from then on the blush of innocence begins to fade. When Rémi plays an oboe solo at a concert, Léo regards him with pride; little by little, however, he is peeling away from his pal. (We think of unfriending as something performed with a tap of a finger. This is the real deal.) Forty-five minutes into the movie, something happens, and we don’t need the shot of a harvesting contraption, churning flowers from the soil, to tell us that the companionship of Léo and Rémi will be forever threshed.

To be honest, I found “Close” as hard to sit through as a horror flick. A vision of bliss descends into a sorrow show. As with a china figurine placed near the lip of a shelf, all you can do is brace yourself for the smash. There’s no sex, no suppurating special effects, and no violence, although Léo does vent his frustrations on the hockey rink. Fenced in by the grille of his helmet, he slams himself into the wall. Most upsetting of all is a bout of boyish horseplay, in a bedroom, that kicks off as a lark but turns into a dogfight, complete with claws and teeth.

What Dhont understands, in short, is how kinetic the rites of passage are—how growing pains are expressed not in words, however therapeutic, but in rushes of activity. When the kids in the classroom are invited to voice their feelings, they mumble in platitudes; messing about on a beach, they come alive. If only François Truffaut were around to watch this film. He would have measured the pulse of its sadness, quick and slow, and cherished, as I did, the extraordinary scenes between Rémi’s mother (Émilie Dequenne) and Léo, who wind up confronting each other in a forest. Here is another tale of women and sons. Fathers flit by like ghosts. ♦

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