Does an actor who writes a part for himself, then directs himself in that part, become a trio of collaborators or an unruly split personality? Not that either scenario can’t make for an interesting film, but outside of a handful of rock-star examples, usually starting with that “Citizen Kane” dude (and let’s be honest, Orson Welles sprang from the womb wanting to do everything), it’s the kind of ambition that rarely reveals mastery of all three disciplines.
Twenty-one-year-old Alex Wolff, an ex-Nickelodeon star who lay to rest plenty of child-actor baggage last year with his searing turn as Toni Collette’s teenage son in “Hereditary,” hasn’t always been just a performer, having written music for the kid series he headlined with brother Nat (“The Naked Brothers Band”) and even a play that his actor-director mother Polly Draper staged at a small theater in New York. But now Wolff is making that “see what I can do” leap of faith with the indie drama “The Cat and The Moon,” a semi-autobiographical project he wrote and directed for himself to star in as a troubled teen in an unfamiliar city navigating loss, alienation and new connections.
The good news is that Wolff isn’t punching above his weight as a nascent multi-hyphenate, having assembled a generally sensitive if sometimes meandering tale without too many moving parts, adhering mainly to the emotional weather patterns on its creator’s face. Wolff plays 17-year-old Nick, who in the opening scene arrives in New York to live temporarily with a jazz musician named Cal (Mike Epps), an old bandmate of Nick’s late father, while Nick’s mom completes a stint in rehab.
Fond of weed and wiseass remarks, Nick falls in with a gregarious pair of well-to-do troublemakers at school, chatty ringleader Seamus (Skyler Gisondo, “Booksmart”) and ghetto-affected loose cannon Russell (Tommy Nelson, “My Friend Dahmer”). They introduce Nick to a world of late-night partying across the city’s streets, high-rise pads, and rooftops.
The girls in their orbit provide a sweeter form of companionship, but while quiet, insecure platinum blonde Lola (Olivia Boreham-Wing) shows a romantic interest in Nick, it’s Seamus’s sharp-eyed, quick-witted girlfriend Eliza (Stefania LaVie Owen, “Krampus”) with whom he develops a fast, friendly bond, one complicated all the more by how often Nick sees Seamus hooking up with other girls during their drug-and-alcohol-fueled nights out.
Nick’s relationship with Cal, meanwhile, begins tentatively with a sense of something unaddressed but friendly, until complications in Nick’s flowering as a wild child lead to domestic tensions. Eventually, after a particularly turmoil-ridden night for Nick, he and Cal air what’s causing both of them pain about how they each left things with Nick’s father before he died.
All of this is handled with an agreeably lived-in attentiveness by Wolff, who has clearly seen enough youth-centered indies to know what feels authentic about broken teenagers and what doesn’t. Even if he hangs on a little too long in some scenes and could use a better sense of story mechanics overall, he wants you to be simultaneously turned off and intrigued by, and ultimately understanding of, their rapport and antics.
Then again, the performances, starting with Wolff’s, feel appropriately centered in their uneasiness, and that’s an essential component for a story of emotional drift like “The Cat and the Moon.” It’s easy to fault the egos of actors who want to write and direct themselves, but if they don’t make the most of the star attraction — their own performance strengths — what’s the point? Wolff is obviously good with a kind of dazed pain that can turn into either hotheadedness or collapse, but he’s also smart with the gifts his cast can bring, most notably LaVie Owen’s edgy charm, and Epps’ effective portrayal of a cautiously charitable family friend.
Even better is that, by the end, an adult intelligence emerges about emotions, connections, and grief that further burnishes Wolff’s decision to shepherd this story himself. Yes, it helps when you have people like Noah Baumbach, thanked in the credits, on hand for directing tips, but one can sense what coming from a musical family did for telling this particular story, never more so than in a lovely moment between Nick at the piano, with Cal joining him on saxophone. A sweet, plaintive melody comes out that speaks to a bond being formed, and that’s what “The Cat and the Moon,” at its youthful, thoughtful, eyes-and-ears-open best, resembles.