“The Cat and the Moon” is the sort of first-feature project likely to make your average aspiring young filmmaker roll their eyes in exasperation. A showbiz professional since age 6, child of an actor and a jazz pianist, approaching big-screen stardom in recent hits “Hereditary” and “Jumanji,” actor/writer/musician Alex Wolff naturally steps into the director’s chair at age 21 with resources few wannabes will ever access. What’s more, “The Cat and the Moon” shows all external signs of being a little too indulgently “write what you know,” as it involves a teen (played by guess-who) dealing with jazz-musician father figures in the multihyphenate’s native New York City.
It’s impossible to keep harrumphing once “Cat” actually starts, however: Wolff has made a debut feature as impressive in its deliberate modesty and unpretentiousness as it is in matters of psychological nuance and technical skill. Lacking the kind of narrative hook that might kindle a sleeper success (indeed, FilmRise is only opening the film on single New York and Los Angeles screens), this is nonetheless one of the year’s strongest Amerindie dramas. Its fresh take on adolescent dysfunction will hopefully find an appreciative audience in simultaneous streaming release.
Wolff’s screenplay starts with deceptive simplicity as his protagonist Nick emerges from an airport cab (not before asking the driver, “You got any weed?”) on the Manhattan doorstep of Cal (Mike Epps), with whom he’ll be staying for a few weeks. It takes us a while to figure out this slightly awkward arrangement is happening because Nick’s mother has entered rehab back home in Detroit. Cal is a longtime friend of both parents, and was a jazz-world colleague of the late father. Still underage, Nick officially requires caretaking during mom’s timeout, but is prickly about it — he’s clearly had lots of practice in being more or less self-sufficient.
Cal has already enrolled him in a local high school for the length of his visit. There, loner-ish Nick is surprised and pleased when he’s immediately befriended by a boisterous group of peers, including the warm, outgoing Seamus (Skyler Gisondo) and hyperactive, filter-free Russell (Tommy Nelson). They sweep him into a social scene that’s heavy on the partying yet still within the normal teenage range — not particularly jaded, privileged or self-destructive.
It’s an exhilarating escape from what we glean hasn’t been a particularly easy road for Nick so far. Accustomed to defensively keeping his own emotions in check, he doesn’t let it spill until late in the going here that he never really had friends before, period. The icing on the cake is a strong mutual attraction toward Seamus’ girlfriend Eliza (Stefania LaVie Owen), the guilt over which is somewhat alleviated by the knowledge that Seamus cheats on her seemingly every time he gets high.
But the joys of this welcoming clique aren’t enough to entirely muffle our hero’s darker emotions, which minor conflicts can cause to flare up with sometimes frightening intensity. It’s very slowly revealed just how much rage and pain he’s suppressing over his father’s (possibly accidental, possibly suicidal) death some years back. Wolff’s unshowy performance and astute direction pay off most dramatically in those moments when Nick’s defenses collapse — into violence, as during an out-of-control fight at a house party, or tearful accusation, as in an excoriating climactic confrontation with Cal. In these scenes we suddenly glimpse how much control it takes for Nick to function despite the “mess” of his parents’ behaviors, and how overdue he is for an explosion.
But to its credit, “The Cat and the Moon” is not at all a navel-gazing exercise in which subsidiary characters simply orbit around the protagonist’s sun. Using actors who (like him) have mostly been onscreen since childhood, Wolff draws credibly immature, likable, non-stereotypical character turns from the aforementioned cast, as well as Giullian Gioiello, Olivia Boreham-Wing and Camrus Johnson as other key members in a teen circle. Epps is excellent as a guardian whose attempts at assuming a more overtly paternal role get rebuffed, until need finally conquers resistance.
While the gist here is a familiar one of coming-of-age seriocomedy, Wolff avoids predictable beats, letting significant insights emerge almost incidentally rather than milking them for melodramatic effect. The astute dialogue is neither overly precocious or slangy, and the occasional note of overt social commentary can be joltingly effective: notably a sequence in which cocky but harmless Russell’s big mouth elicits a harsh (yet somewhat justified) response from a street-corner dealer played by Quincy Chad. Such tense episodes, as well as numerous quieter ones, underline Wolff’s ease at handling potentially tricky tonal shifts within scenes.
There’s an understated yet generous spirit to “Cat” that makes what largely plays as a casual slice of life accrue cumulative power. Wolff provides closure of sorts for all the characters here, minus any excess narrative bow-tying. You depart with an agreeable sense that they’ve made each other better people — even via the odd fistfight.
The film’s subterranean current of wry, hard-won wisdom is enhanced by its attractive assembly, from Anthony Savini’s unfussily handsome photography and Frank Reynolds’ sensitive editing to a diverse soundtrack that (alongside compositions by Wolff himself and real-life father Michael) makes room for classic jazz tracks by Wayne Shorter, George Shearing and others.