This indie charmer helps explains our culture's fascination with Man's Best Friend.
We love movies about pets, be it “Old Yeller” or “Marley & Me.”
Honestly, this is pretty weird.
The pet story is one of the few new kind of tales told in the 20th century and beyond. Shakespeare didn’t write about Fido or Mittens. Homer doesn’t mention them, either.
Of course, animals do play a large role in many mythologies. The ancient Egyptians revered cats and even mummified some. Gotterdammerung, aka Ragnarok, is essentially about how wolves take over the planet and kill the old gods.
But mythical animals and monsters are a far cry from pets. Horses are useful. We get milk from cows. Domesticated animals appear in older stories, but a pet is more than just a domesticated animal.
Pets are basically useless. Yes, dogs are occasionally used for hunting and protection. Cats were “domesticated” (cats aren’t really domesticated, they just allow humans to live in their proximity) for their mousing abilities.
How Our Pets Fit Into Our Busy Lives
“Where the Red Fern Grows” is not the norm. “Homeward Bound” is the standard. Pets are animals that we want in our lives for no rational purpose or reason. We just want them, for their own sake.
That’s what pets represent. Non-utilitarian love. Love for love’s sake. The kind of love God utilized when he created humanity. Love that doesn’t benefit, love that exists for love’s sake.
And in many ways that’s what the little film “Stella’s Last Weekend” is all about. Some mild spoilers will follow.
Stella is the name of a dog at the center of this film. It’s her last weekend because they’re going to put her down. She’s very old and having a hard time functioning.
The entire plot of “Stella’s” is structured around the final days before such an event is to take place. But this film isn’t morbid. And really it isn’t a “pet movie.” Most of the plot is about two brothers (Nat and Alex Wolff) and a love triangle that has developed between them.
But while Stella isn’t the star of the show she is its heart. Because this is a story about family. She is the totem for this clan, the religious iconography of their love for each other.
The same way that children are a natural outgrowth of the love of a husband and wife, pets become addendums to family. Families are supposed to be interdependent organic centers of life. Ever expanding and adding, adopting new members either by biological creation or natural social addition.
Getting Personal About Our Pets
My wife and I can’t have our own children. We should have adopted some by now, but being ridiculous millennials our lives aren’t situated for such a thing. Financially, emotionally, etc.
Which is the most unfortunate aspect of infertility from a utilitarian perspective. Because children aren’t really supposed to be something for which you prepare. The arrival of children is supposed to grow you up so that they can then grow up.
They are the logical outcome of marriage. Marital life is supposed to become adapted to children, not the other way around.
But what we could add we have, and now three cats have dominion over our small Los Angeles apartment. The most unfortunate outcome of this reality has been the realization that so called “cat ladies” aren’t crazy. They just need an extension of themselves, they need something to love. Cat ladies are actually doing the most natural thing in the universe. Adding to their lives and decreasing their isolation.
That is what Stella represents. She is the sign that this group is a family. It’s not as if families without pets are incomplete, but that a family can be symbolized by something as simple as a pet dog is profound.
The dynamic between the brothers in “Stella’s Last Weekend” is especially good. But I wouldn’t claim these performances are spectacular. They’re natural and normal. There aren’t any moments that might take one’s breath away, a la Marlon Brando’s “I could’ve been a contender” speech, another complicated moment between brothers.
The performances are authentic in that simple, unpretentious way that has come to be the hallmark of good indie fare. Like the best FX the viewer doesn’t really notice the subtle magic that is weaved through each scene.
Part of what makes this film about family so effective is that it happens to have been made by a family. The director and writer, Polly Draper, plays the widowed mother to her actual biological sons. Nat and Alex Wolff.
Their biological father, Michael Wolff, wrote the film’s score.
They took a real risk in doing this. What if it hadn’t worked? It did work, very well, in fact.
This Love Triangle Could Use Some Tinkering
The weakest link might be Paulina Singer. Her performance isn’t bad, but sometimes she’s the odd woman out in the film’s love triangle. She ceases to be a character and becomes merely an object or plot device. She’s not objectified, exactly. As written she’s very sweet and sympathetic throughout.
Almost to a fault.
Singer is very beautiful and suffers from “Minka Kelly Syndrome” – extremely attractive women who ooze sweetness but seem unreal. In a typical rom-com this would seem normal, but in a film this authentic and quirky she’s out of place.
My favorite character was played by Nick Sandow. He’s mostly there as a punching bag for the brothers to mock. Their father has been dead for a long time and apparently mom has gone through quite a few loser boyfriends like Sandow’s Ron. They just assume Ron is like all the others. And at first he is a bit ridiculous, easily riled up and unsure of his place in this family.
Without revealing too much, his character sees some interesting progression. He’s the dark horse, bringing what feels like a lot of life experience to bear on this emotional weekend.
There’s no villains in “Stella’s Last Weekend.” Some narcissistic ballerinas come the closest, but as with most bullies they turn out to be their own worst enemies. It’s hard to tell a good story without a real villain. But “Stella’s” is that rarity. Because even the simplest stories about normal life always have an unnamed villain: time and death.
Carpe diem is the most readily available excuse to be selfish. And yet the only thing that makes our lives valuable in the face of death’s inevitability is not the maximazation of pleasure, but of love.
Each weekend could potentially be our last. What’s certain is that if we don’t maximise love over utility, death has already won.
“Stella’s Last Weekend” is a small example of how to rob death of victory.