Alex Wolff has been making a name for himself since he was 10 years old, starring in the Nickelodeon musical comedy series The Naked Brothers Band with his brother, Nat Wolff. After a stop on HBO’s In Treatment earlier this decade, Alex has slowly been gaining more and more recognition for his work in high-profile projects like Hereditary and Patriots Day, as well as Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle and its upcoming sequel Jumanji: The Next Level. He’s an actor, composer, producer and former teen heartthrob, and now you can add writer and director to his resume with the release of his directorial debut The Cat and the Moon.
The Cat and the Moon takes its title from a W.B. Yeats poem that focuses on the concept of mutability or change (if you want to be less pretentious). Wolff stars as Nick, whose mother is struggling with substance abuse, and who recently lost his father under mysterious circumstances as well. As the film begins, Nick is being sent to New York to stay with a family friend named Cal (Mike Epps) so that Nick’s mother can focus on her recovery following a recent relapse. Looking to bring some order and routine back into Nick’s world, Cal enrolls him in a local high school where Nick makes friends with a tight crew of teens and embarks on a coming-of-age journey that leads to connection and love, but also to heartbreak and anger, particularly regarding the loss of his father.
The two-hour runtime might make you raise an eyebrow considering this is a coming-of-age film that serves as Wolff’s directorial debut, but Wolff and his talented cast — including Skyler Gisondo, Stefania LaVie Owen, Giullian Yao Gioiello, and scene-stealer Tommy Nelson — do such an impressive job of immersing you in their world of teenage rule-breaking and altered fun that the movie ends exactly when it should. Wolff presents Nick as a tender, honest and caring human being who has trouble connecting to his new friends as a result of his emotional defensiveness that developed while living in a home rife with emotional instability. We even get a taste of his father’s explosive temper in a clip that Cal is playing for a music student of his. Nick uses his anger as a defense mechanism that explodes when he feels threatened or dismissed, or if you insult his family or new friends. Nick’s fits of rage don’t make him an easily likable protagonist, but this is one of the best truths about the film. It does not cop out for an easy ending or a feel-good moment that would undercut and insult the world Wolff is presenting here. There are no easy answers, and all of us have our good sides and our selfish, bad sides — especially as teenagers. The frankness with which the film presents these situations when they arise separates it from the recent slate of mainstream coming-of-age movies. The keyword there is mainstream. There have been a handful of coming-of-age movies outside the mainstream that have dared to show the truth of what is happening in the world of teenagers nowadays, and The Cat and the Moon deserves membership in that club.
Wolff injects the film with a simmering danger bubbling just below the surface during every adventure, excursion or party scene. Certainly the scenes between Nelson’s Russell and a local drug dealer, and the party fight scene that suddenly becomes quite brutal, highlight that intention. It’s this danger that also gives the courtship of Nick and Eliza (Owen) a tender yet fatal vibe to it. Their budding love is not intentional or with ulterior motives even though they both see a greenlight because of Seamus’s (Gisondo) casual and regrettable unfaithfulness to Eliza. Nick and Eliza are so naturally right for each other that you might be fooled into ignoring the repercussions of their possible union. However, Wolff again does not let any of his characters off the hook here, and busts this possible union open because teenagers are not always in control of their emotions or actions.
The Cat and the Moon is a self-assured, confident film from an actor turned first-time director. It’s one that announces Alex Wolff as a filmmaker to watch out for in the future. He told me that he is already working on another script for his next effort behind the camera. Wolff explores the emotions, confusion and search for belonging that accompanies almost all teenagers during this stage in their lives with a rare credulity. By the time the end credits roll, I was thankful to have spent the two hours with these characters during this chunk of time in their lives. You just might feel the same way too.
To hear more of Alex Wolff’s thoughts on The Cat and the Moon and his work, click here for my interview with him on Collider’s The Deep Cut podcast.