One of the more enjoyable and surprising movies of the year is a coming-of-age film directed by a 22-year-old actor called The Cat and the Moon. It’s directed by and stars former child actor Alex Wolff, and is a gorgeous, at times heartbreaking debut by a new cinematic voice.
Wolff, who starred as a teenager on the Nickelodeon series The Naked Brothers Band along with brother Nat, has had some high-profile movie roles in recent years. He was Boston marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in Patriots Day, the son in Hereditary, and the kid who had long been trapped in the game in Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle.
But with The Cat and the Moon, he takes center stage in a film of his own. Wolff plays Nick, a teenager from Michigan who is spending a few weeks in New York City. His mother, we learn, is in rehab, while his father is dead. He’s staying with Cal (Mike Epps), a jazz musician who was his father’s bandmate, and he soon falls in with a group of classmates (Skyler Gisondo, Tommy Nellson, Stefania LaVie Owen, Giullian Yao Gioiello) who show him around New York and give him the sort of group of friends he’d never had before. Most notable are Seamus (Gisondo), a life-of-the-party type who constantly cheats on his girlfriend (Owen), on whom Nick develops a fast crush.
Meanwhile, Nick must confront the demons that affected both of his parents, and how the legacy of addiction and depression may be manifesting themselves in him as well. The characters also connect through jazz music- including a titular song that Wolff wrote himself- and Epps shines in a rare dramatic role.
Wolff’s directorial signatures lean a bit more heavily towards the hand-held camera work than is advisable, and its running time of nearly two hours is a bit excessive, but The Cat and the Moon is an emotionally wrenching film which brings out the best in all the young actors. Perhaps best of all, they feels like a real group of friends, in the way the group did in The Perks of Being a Wallflower did, and Wolff’s chemistry with the girl of the group (Owen) is crackling. Yes, the actors are noticeably older than they’re supposed to be, but I was willing to let that slide.
Watching The Cat and the Moon, I was reminded more than a little of Princess Cyd, Stephen Cone’s outstanding indie film from two years ago, which was also about a teenager visiting another city, living with a non-parent adult, having a romance, and using the experience to come to terms with family tragedies of the past.
According to its press notes, The Cat and the Moon is autobiographical to some degree, as Wolff grew up in New York, and his father, Michael, is a jazz musician who was the bandleader on The Arsenio Hall Show (his mother is the actress Polly Draper.)
It may have only opened on a single screen each in New York and Los Angeles, but The Cat and the Moon deserves to be discovered and cherished. It’s currently available on most VOD platforms.