Your age likely defines how you know actor Alex Wolff. If you’re my age (near 40), then films like The House of Tomorrow (2017), Hereditary (2018), and the two new Jumanji (2017, 2019) films are your touch points. If you’re younger, then it’s probably the The Naked Brothers Band (2005) or In Treatment (2010). However you’ve come to know Wolff, he’s likely made a lingering impression as his performances are often quite natural, whether dealing with extreme drama or the supernatural. They are performances which ground his characters, making them far more accessible than you’d expect. Given the creative nature of his family — his mother, Polly Draper, created The Naked Brothers Band, his father, Michael Wolff, is an accomplished musician, and his brother, Nat, is also an actor — it makes sense that Wolff might make the leap from performer to creator. For his directorial debut, The Cat and the Moon, Wolff mines his own experiences of anger, frustration, and loneliness to create a stirring slice-of-life drama that never stoops to condescension or exaggeration while capturing a formative moment in teenage years.
Wolff stars as Nick, a 17-year-old who moves from Detroit to New York City to live with his father’s ex-band partner Cal (Mike Epps). On his first day of school, he meets Eliza (Stefania LaVie Owen), Russell (Tommy Nelson), Skyler (Giullian Yao Gioiello), and Seamus (Skyler Sisondo), who welcome him warmly and invite him to join them at a party. From then on, Nick becomes pretty tight with this crew, finally feeling like he can put down his anxieties of his dead father and trouble mother behind him. Except everywhere he goes reminds him of the last steps his father took in New York, creating a shroud that hovers over every delightful and warm experience, turning it cold and brittle.
From the outside, The Cat and the Moon can easily be seen as a vanity project. The film is written and directed by Wolff and he has a starring role. In execution, that feeling may remain as the camera is almost entirely on him. Except this isn’t a film that is about making Wolff a superhero, a lady’s man, or some other ultra-male teen fantasy. Instead, The Cat and the Moon is a tale requiring absolute vulnerability as the camera unflinchingly captures all the details in their brilliant joy and terrible agony. The narrative alone is, at times, difficult to observe as the audience learns why Nick is in New York, why that place is painful to him, and why going back to Detroit also brings its challenges. Rather than info dump the audience information, Wolff wisely spoon-feds details as Nick shares them with his new comrades. In so doing, moments from the beginning of the film take a new shape as our perception of Nick changes. Taking this approach is bound to frustrate audiences who desire something easier to digest in their coming-of-age/young adult stories, but it’s a wise move as it makes each new scene possess the potential for revelation. It also makes the growing dramatic subtextual tension far more palatable as the audience begins to put the dots together of where Nick is in his life, metaphysically and physically, and why this matters. In short, Wolff creates a veritable time bomb whose fuse is lit before the movie begins, and the audience only comes to realize it when it’s too late for Nick.
If you’ve seen 1995’s Kids from director Larry Clark, then you already have some sense of the direction on display. Wolff appears to employ a free-hand method so that the entirety of The Cat and the Moon takes on a documentary-esque quality, applying a vulnerable quality to the film. As mentioned, Wolff primarily keeps the camera on himself, only deviating to show other characters as they exist in proximity to Nick. In each instance where the camera leaves Nick, it’s to showcase something that will be important to Nick in his future. In one scene, it’s to set up a growing love triangle. In another, it’s to make it clear for the audience what is happening when Nick accidently walks in on two teens going at it in a bathroom. In that specific instance, what Nick sees is too brief for him to process fully, but in showing it to the audience, we’re able to connect the narrative dots and keep moving. Additionally, the majority of the shots are in the medium-to-close-up range no matter who is in focus. This amplifies the already intimate nature of the narrative, putting the audience as close to Nick and the rest of the characters as possible. This doesn’t so much make us conspirators as it does put us right in the drama as it unfolds.
Those familiar with Wolff’s acting already know that he’s well-equipped for drama, so there’s no need exploring his techniques at all. Smartly, he’s gathered together a small group of equally talented actors who make their respective roles feel organic at every turn. Owen brings a lightness and accessibility to Eliza, making her less of an archetypal love interest and more of an actual person. Between Owen’s performance and Wolff’s script, Eliza is given an unexpected and refreshing agency. There are some who may balk at the characterization of a young girl willing to put up with what she does, as well as the love triangle aspects, yet I can remember a time when teenage romances seemed to switch unexpectedly as partners become newly infatuated and less encumbered by monogamy. (Not me, of course. I was too encumbered by tradition and too nerdy to date.) Making up the secondary narrative trio is Gisondo’s Seamus, a role that often feels like a more grounded version of his version of Jared from Booksmart (2019). There’s something inherently charming about Gisondo that makes his performance of Seamus easier to handle, which is a necessity as he is one of the scummier members of the film. The thing is, at least as presented by other characters like Eliza and Skyler, this is just who the group is, so any judgement outside of that group should be ignored. While The Cat and the Moon doesn’t exactly explore tribalism, part of Nick’s journey is exploring a part of New York he’s never been aware of (an aspect taken from Wolff’s own experience of moving to New York and making friends there) along with an exploration of what that town meant to his father. Understanding the rules of these groups is paramount to being able to survive in them. The performances from Gisondo, Owen, Wolff, and the rest of the young cast remain authentic by never acting as the world expects them, but as these characters are. It’s also worth noting, as the only adult/parental figure actually shown on-screen, Mike Epps is absolutely superb as Cal, giving a dramatic performance full of tenderness and love.
As far as directorial debuts go, The Cat and the Moon is one of the strongest. Wolff displays a great sense of purpose and vision, all of which comes together beautifully. There are some issues within the timeline of the narrative so that it becomes hard to tell how much time Nick actually spends in New York and how much time has passed between events we’re shown, creating some dissonance in continuity. All in all, The Cat and the Moon is a strong opening from a creator just getting started. It’s poignant, hilarious in all the right ways, and never panders. Upon its end, I found myself wondering, not what’s next for Nick, but what’s next for Alex, and I think that says a lot.
The Cat and the Moon Special Features
- Photo Gallery
- Theatrical Trailer
- 5.1 DTS-HD MA, 2.0 DTS-HD MA
- 5.1 Surround, 2.0 Stereo
- English subtitles for the deaf and hearing-impaired
Available on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital beginning April 14th, 2020.
For more information, head to the MVD Entertainment Groups’s ordering page for The Cat and the Moon.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.