Imagine what Jesse Eisenberg personifies in movies. Evenly precious and precocious. Always fine. Sometimes truly great. Usually just what he needs to be. Lightly sarcastic but not enough to alienate anyone. No rough edges. Approachable performances that always seem to feel like someone you know or could know. It just works. Only just.
You can only direct the way you live. You can only imbue a film with the personality you have access to. It is little surprise that Jesse Eisenberg’s debut is the most Jesse Eisenberg film that it could be. The movie is Jesse Eisenberg; his past and his presence. It makes sense. There could hardly be any other outcome here.
There are other central characters here who are also proxies for Jesse Eisenberg and his life. What we have here is a three-sided drama. We have Finn Wolfhard on the cusp of escaping his Young Adult reputation, but just narrowly staying inside the box, as a YouTuber with a medium-sized following. So wholly does his world revolve around his YouTube channel that it creates a generational text: he’s unable to relate to people outside the scope of his project. That puts him in direct conflict with his mother, played with slightly off-key, well-meaning empathy by Julianne Moore. She doesn’t understand. The burden of outgoing empathy in her actual work in a therapeutic model makes it hard to bring anything home to her family. Then there is the young woman who might bring them back together played with sure footing by Alisha Boe.
Everyone in it is really good in the way Jesse Eisenberg can be quite good. It’s a straightforward story so it doesn’t demand strenuous drama. This boy feels isolated by his online presence where he reaches so many people from so many places. His worldview is particularly simple. He really wants to write songs that every culture who subscribes to him will understand. What the function of a possible love interest — but let’s call her an informational interest — serves is that she’s able to reel him into a world of actual left-wing politics. Just the simple overarching kind, the film isn’t trying to make any larger statements, please. Well, he starts writing these vaguely political songs and wants everyone to be so impressed when he makes just a little money doing it. ‘Look at me, I understand your politics against harmful systems and institutions because I can make a little money mumbling about them over a guitar,’ he seems to think.
Not every film is made because it has a reason. Sometimes a film is made because you’re Jesse Eisenberg and you can make something that is like looking in a mirror. It’s not too bad really. You don’t need to suffer very much. Wolfhard, Moore, and Boe are just efficient enough a trifecta that it simply works. Because the film is pretty small there are really just two available options: you’re lightly entertained or you’re lightly disinterested. It would be hard to find stronger opinions on the subject.
Generally, the film is a one-note proposition. It is well-meaning in encapsulating a certain kind of infatuation about glomming onto someone because it is a teachable moment. You can learn a few things but what can you offer in return? There are a few sour notes. A couple of awkward scenes with the father character threaten to be a bit emotionally conniving but you can get past it because the film does not need to burden you with many other feelings. The path here is linear and not totally unpleasant. You’re convinced of nothing new but you do get to watch Moore and Wolfhard play out a mother-and-son dynamic that basically works and may be relatable if your mother talks like Jesse Eisenberg and so do you. Simple and narrow filmmaking is not inherently bad. It is what it is: a small piece of Jesse Eisenberg thinking about certain relationship dynamics out loud. That it mostly works makes you think he should keep going at this.