Some parents pull strings to enroll their kids in their alma mater. In Hollywood, celebrity parents have been hammering together family showcases for their progeny — backyard plays elevated to the screen — and taking their own bows as writer, director, producer, or co-star. Earlier this summer was “The Year of Spectacular Men,” Lea Thompson and Howard Deutch’s salute to their daughters Madelyn and Zoey, and the most recent endowment is “Stella’s Last Weekend,” by actress-turned-filmmaker Polly Draper, which stars her sons Nat and Alex Wolff as two brothers dragged across the threshold of maturity over a dramatic weekend with one virginity loss, one fraternal betrayal, and one dying dog, the Stella of the title.
It’s inaccurate to consider “Stella’s Last Weekend” merely an expensive gift from Draper to her sons. Nat and Alex are both sought-after young actors who, since their days together on Nickelodeon’s “The Naked Brothers Band,” have starred separately in such hits as “The Fault in Our Stars,” “Paper Towns,” “Hereditary” and “Jumanji.” They’re in the position of saying no, not pleading for their mother’s yes. The irony is that Draper’s own skills would be better showcased herself if she had cast anyone else. The characters she’s created, Jack (Nat Wolff) and Oliver (Alex Wolff), are teen cads who yell at old ladies who dare to shush them at the ballet. They’re destructive, callous, petty, and cruel, the heroes of the film only by default because everyone else has been written to be worse. There’s a wasps’ nest of rich ballerinas the brothers love to irritate by, say, chewing a piece of sushi and spitting it in a dancer’s hand. But such rudeness is justified, the film says, because one of the girls has spread false rumors that she and Jack had a one-night-stand, a lie that makes no sense given the way she glares at him like a worm.
On paper, the script could be a skewering of adolescence sociopathy, a millennial “American Psycho,” sans all the murders. With other actors — ones who would have to earn empathy — “Stella’s Last Weekend” could even be good. The Wolffs are fine actors, and, no shocker, convincing siblings. But they’re playing characters, well, only a mother could love, and Draper beams such pure delight at the pair, such blinding admiration, that the movie trips over its assumption that the audience will adore them, too. Draper even models divine forgiveness, having cast herself as their widowed onscreen mother Sally, who’s dizzy, charming and delightfully unpredictable, the type to throw a funeral party for a dog. In one scene, she backs down from grounding Oliver and then whisper-begs him to apologize for calling her a “bitch.” Not even for her sake, but so that her live-in boyfriend Ron (Nick Sandow) will think she’s got parenthood under control. The boy smirks that she’s pitiful. She gratefully kisses him on the cheek.
“Stella’s Last Weekend” plays these scenes for light comedy, or at worst, a teasing rap on the knuckles. But it’s not slapstick or satire — the indie pop score is too sincere. Though the brothers take no one’s hurt feelings seriously, the film is devoted to theirs. Their trouble starts silently. Jack, the quieter and older of the two, spots a gorgeous girl across the subway platform. He says nothing — even the camera doesn’t dare approach her — but from a polite 20 feet away, the audience can tell that Violet (Paulina Singer) is radiant in her silver pleated skirt and snickers. Shortly after, Jack tells the extroverted-to-the-point-of-unhinged Oliver about the non-incident, that he saw a girl who broke his heart after a magical encounter at a party. And then Violet rings the doorbell and introduces herself as Oliver’s new girlfriend. Cue a love triangle, teenager-style, where big scenes take place over text messages or at an arcade claw machine or the beach, where Violet deals with the awkwardness by stripping to her underwear and plunging into the surf.
It’s a twist that’s way too parochial for a film set in Queens, made doubly implausible by insisting that of course Violet would be interested in a younger high schooler who dry humps everything, including Ron (twice). Meanwhile, as grown-up emotions and grown-up stakes are off the table, the audience can only half-heartedly interest itself in which brother will be the momentary blip of a bad boyfriend that Violet will forget by the time she turns 30. Still, Singer is a luminous, mature presence, at least until the script forces her to act otherwise for reasons neither she nor the film can explain, and to seem out-of-character even as they’re happening. Even overbearing, embarrassingly combover-ed Ron who we first meet flipping the finger at the dinner table, shifts personalities to mutate into someone lovable whenever “Stella’s Last Weekend” decides it’s time for a hug. As for Stella herself, the terminally ill dog, she gets the POV shot that sums up the film: an exhausted creature staring at two boys who ignore her life-or-death drama to fist-fight about something dumb.