Stella’s Last Weekend


Ollie is certainly no angel.

(2018) Dramedy (Paladin/The Orchard) Nat Wolff, Alex Wolff, Polly Draper, Paulina Singer, Nick Sandow, Julia Macchio, Julia Abueva, Leo Heller, Lisa Darden, Patricia Squire, Will Cooper, Norm Golden, Simon Maxwell, Joseph Satine, Shawn Allen McLaughlin, Kelly Swint, Adam Enright, Christopher Halliday, Alex DiMattia, Kareem Williams, Courtney Leigh Goodwin, Harriet Weaver. Directed by Polly Draper

 

Personally, I’ve never had a brother. I grew up with a sister who was less than a year younger than I (my parents believed in getting the childbearing phase out of the way quickly). I know from experience with my sibling though that we talk in our own peculiar shorthand. In-jokes that mean nothing to the world at large never fail to elicit smiles from one or both of us. There are still jokes that I can reduce my sister to helpless tears of laughter with while outsiders look on in puzzlement. It’s that way between siblings.

Ollie (A. Wolff) and Jack (N. Wolff) are that way as well. Jack is returning home from college where he is studying Marine Biology to witness the last days of the beloved family dog, Stella. Their mother Sally (Draper) has decided to throw a farewell party for the dog, much to the bemusement of her sons and the confusion of her boyfriend Ron (Sandow) whom the boys mercilessly rib and whom they appear to despise. He seems like a high-strung traditionalist who can’t understand why kids of today don’t respect their elders the way his generation used to. Believe me, Ron, I hear you.

Ollie is also picking this weekend to introduce his family to his new girlfriend Violet (Singer), an aspiring ballerina: “Violet, this is everyone I love. And Ron.” Ollie is head over heels in love with Violet and confesses to his brother that she sent him some racy pictures on Snapchat of her underboob. Jack realizes that he’s met Violet before and that the two of them had a mini-fling which ended with her not returning his calls. He’s been obsessing with her ever since and now she’s apparently in love with his brother. He’s trying to step aside in favor of his brother but his feelings for her are too strong and as it turns out, she still has feelings for him.

Ollie is blissfully unaware of the drama going on alongside him. He’s too busy needling the mean girls in her ballet class, skewering poor Ron and doting on Stella who is gamely trying to live out her last days with as much dignity as she can muster, but the pain is beginning to get to be too much, which Sally acknowledges in a truly poignant moment. However, when the secrets the boys have been hiding from their mom and each other comes out, it tears a big hole in what was a close-knit family. Can they recover?

Ollie is an expert in put-downs and his potty mouth sometimes drives Ron to pulling out what little hair he has left; Ollie has no compunction at nailing Ron to the wall over his comb-over. Alex plays Ollie as a high-strung, energetic kid with a terrific brain – he’s already outdoing Jack in the courses that are leading Jack into a career in Marine Biology. Ollie is witty and quick-witted; the punch lines come rapid fire between the two boys. He is also capable of being a first-class asshole. Jack, on the other hand, is quieter, less acerbic and no less quick witted; he can hold his own with his brother but is generally less talkative with others. I can’t vouch for how the two interact off-camera but their banter sometimes sounds overly scripted; it’s hard to come up with the perfect comeback at every opportunity and Ollie seems to do so effortlessly. It’s possible he’s that quick but not likely and so the heart of the film, the byplay between the brothers starts to sound forced and unnatural.

Despite the clever dialogue, the chemistry between Nat and Alex is genuine as you would expect between siblings. The affection between the two is genuine and even when things break down between the two, everything that happens in their relationship feels authentic; at times though the audience clearly feels like outsiders witnessing a conversation they weren’t meant to hear.

There are some genuinely poignant moments as I alluded to above; there are also some really funny one-liners, mostly courtesy of Ollie. There is definitely chemistry between the brothers; after all, this isn’t the first time they’ve acted together before (some might remember them from the Naked Brothers Band show they did about a decade ago) and the affection is obvious. Still, at times the dialogue seems to be a bit forced and the events a little too contrived.

Stella’s Last Weekend turns out to be a bittersweet relationship movie that to its credit doesn’t coast too often. The film earns most of its emotional responses which is to be envied in a day and age when most movies are lazy about their emotional manipulation. The movie isn’t always successful but when it is, it is. Unfortunately, when it’s not it’s not.

REASONS TO GO: There is some nice family bonding moments.
REASONS TO STAY: The filmmakers are trying too hard to make it witty and cute.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, crude gestures, some sexual content and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Wolff brothers are Draper’s sons in real life; the dog that played Stella is also the family dog (who is alive and well as of this writing).
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/21/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 69% positive reviews: Metacritic: 64/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Only Living Boy in New York
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
London Fields

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The Wolfpack


Tougher than the rest.

Tougher than the rest.

(2015) Documentary (Magnolia) Bhagavan Angulo, Govinda Angulo, Jagadisa Angulo, Krisna Angulo, Mukunda Angulo, Naryana Angulo, Visnu Angulo, Oscar Angulo, Susanne Angulo. Directed by Crystal Moselle

Sometimes we all want to shut the world out. Just let it go on doing what it does outside the safety and security of our homes; we just need a little break. What would you do, though, if you were forced to live that way – isolated from the world, limited in contact to a few outings a year and from what you see from movies?

That’s just how the seven kids of the Angulo family were raised. In a government housing complex in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Oscar and Susanne Angulo chose to keep their children inside the apartment day in and day out, refusing to allow them to venture outdoors other than on special occasions. Sometimes the boys get to leave their apartment three or four times a year; some years, they don’t make it out at all. Oscar, a Peruvian Hare Krishna, was unrealistically paranoid about the outside world and wanted to protect his children from it. His wife went along, at first because she too was concerned but later because she was intimidated by her husband.

That leaves the boys to figure things out on their own. Against all odds, they turn out to be articulate, congenial and intelligent boys, much of which is a testament to the homeschooling they received from their mom. All of them have been given names from Sanskrit legends and mythology and none of them have been allowed to cut their hair when we first meet them, their locks cascading down to their waists. They have the distinctive Andean features of their father, but none of them seem disposed to like him very much.

And with good reason; he’s not really a likable guy. For much of the movie he sits in his room, isolating himself from his family and only coming out on occasion, rarely seeing much of the family initially. He’s often compared to a jailer and the home to a prison which seems accurate enough. Somewhat unbelievably, as part of his world view, he refuses to work because doing so plays into the hands of the industrialist elite, so he and his seven children live off of government aid programs and the stipend they get for Susanne’s homeschooling.

Yet they have a library of (they claim) 5,000 films on VHS and DVD which I suspect is an exaggeration; I didn’t see any sort of storage in the small four-bedroom apartment that would begin to hold that many films. Moselle chooses not to delve into harder questions about how the family subsists; this isn’t that kind of documentary.

What is obvious is that the boys (and their mom, who’s as much a victim as they are) love each other fiercely and look out for each other. When Mukunda, then 15, starts venturing out on his own without permission, it begins a chain of events in the household as the boys start to question the wisdom of their father’s decisions and stand up to his edicts. By the end of the film, Mukunda has moved out, the others have also started going out on their own and one has even found himself a girlfriend. In short, they’re acting like adolescent boys moving into manhood and even Oscar seems disposed to letting nature take its course.

This is a story that is likely to keep the audience engaged throughout; the boys are terrific subjects and while one is prone to continue asking oneself “How could this happen?” Unfortunately, the filmmakers sabotage their own story in the editing process. The interviews by the filmmakers are interwoven with home video from the family; for recreation, the boys recreate their favorite movies on video, allowing them to enter the worlds that the movies have created for them, so with home-made props they make startlingly clever and inventive recreations and at the film’s end, an original movie of their own.

The problem is that there is no context here; we just get the family’s viewpoint and really don’t get anything else to support or oppose it. We are told that some of the boys are seeing therapists; we don’t get an interview with any sort of expert to talk about what sorts of issues the boys could be facing. That kind of testimony would have only augmented the film.

Not only that and even more egregiously, the interviews bounce around in time; we are never really sure when in the process the interviews are taking place and only near the end when some of the boys defiantly get their hair cut do we realize we are looking at more recent footage. It’s frustrating for the viewer in that a story that should be fairly linear jumps around; there are references to somewhat important events but only one (an incident in which the police broke down the door on suspicion that there were weapons in the apartment when it was just the boys making a movie that involved prop guns) is ever explained or discussed.

The Angulo boys (their sister is developmentally disabled) are slowly integrating themselves into the world and reportedly five of the six are no longer on speaking terms with their father. We don’t hear much from Oscar, other than a kind of half-handed shrug that he made a few mistakes. There are intimations that he is alcoholic and physically abusive, although nothing is really discussed overtly; the boys refer to it, but there is no follow-up.

The movie is meant to be inspiring and it is. We see the boys on a trip to a rural apple orchard and pumpkin patch and their wonder at seeing the countryside firsthand is joyful. We also see the dynamics have changed within the family; Oscar is walking hand in hand with Visnu and Susanne who want to see what her boys are up to. Oscar isn’t interested; finally Susanne breaks her hands free of Oscar and walks alone to find her boys, which she does. Visnu and Oscar are alone.

This is an interesting documentary that could have been a powerful, important documentary with some judicious editing and a little more focus. Moselle didn’t really delve into the more difficult subjects having to do with the imprisonment; how did child protective services not intervene on this case? And quite frankly, it’s likely they did and found that the children were well adjusted and normal in every respect, but with their own peculiar and creative view of the world outside their walls and concluded there was no need to change anything but we are left only with speculation. I can recommend it, but not as much as I would have liked to.

REASONS TO GO: An amazing story. The brothers are engaging, creative and charismatic.
REASONS TO STAY: Poorly edited. Lacks context.
FAMILY VALUES: Some foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Moselle met Mukunda on one of his unauthorized jaunts outside and persuaded the family to let her have access so she could tell their story.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/11/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 84% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: I’m Dancing As Fast As I Can
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Cub