Polly Draper achieves a delicate balance in Stella's Last Weekend, blending real-life family dynamics with a fictional narrative to create an achingly funny exploration of loss. This showcase for her sons Nat and Alex Wolff is a far cry from The Naked Brothers Band, the boisterous Nickelodeon series she created, and which costarred their father Michael Wolff, a pianist and composer. The precocious musicians went on to play numerous awkward teens, and now reunite as bantering brothers who have both fallen for Violet (Paulina Singer).
Writer-director Draper emphasizes their natural chemistry and intense bond, even when they have separated: Nat's Jack went off to college, while Alex's Oliver is finishing high school at home in Queens. As their single mom Sally, Draper displays a befuddled admiration for her sons' quick-witted frankness, and their no-holds-barred family discussions unnerve her boyfriend Ron (Nick Sandow), who is accustomed to a strict demarcation between parents and children.
Draper captures the kind of loving openness that binds together families when the two qualities truly coexist. These oversharers also practice a protective kindness that cushions their harshest interplay. Finding herself alone with Violet, Oliver's new girlfriend who harbors feelings for Jack, Sally growls a mama bear warning about hurting her cubs, but when Singer breaks down in teary confusion, Draper jumps to her side with comforting female solidarity.
There are moments when Draper's romcomy drama slips into sitcom glibness, but the most absurd setup -- a cheery celebration of their terminally ill dog Stella -- is surprisingly poignant. Even members of a family who talk this much can avoid serious conversations, and surprise each other with grief-fueled flashes of wisdom.