This review was originally published as part of our coverage of IFFBoston 2015.
Documentaries are particularly wonderful as a genre in how often they introduce viewers to people that they’d otherwise have about as much of a chance of meeting as they’d have of landing on the moon.
Case in point: the Angulo clan, subjects of Crystal Moselle’s intriguing and often unsettling The Wolfpack, live in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, but it’s a wonder that even Moselle came across them. The family’s seven children (six boys and one girl, all with hair tumbling down to their waists) were raised almost exclusively within the confines of a four-bedroom apartment. Their father held the sole key to the front door, and he kept it locked. Home schooled by their mother and educated by a vast assortment of movies borrowed from the library and bought at a discounted price, the children were barely ever allowed outside during their formative years.
It was only as the siblings grew older that their domineering father, who holds the sole key to the front door, reluctantly allowed them to venture outside into the city. In 2010, Moselle just happened to pass the brothers during one of those excursions, as they swaggered down First Avenue in a pack formation, wearing Reservoir Dogs-inspired sunglasses and looking altogether bizarre, even for New York. The filmmaker approached them and became increasingly fascinated by their unusual story.
It’s not hard to see why Moselle got hooked. The Angulo siblings, including brothers Bhagavan, Govinda, Narayana, Mukunda, Krisna and Jagadesh (and their sister, Visnu, who has a mental handicap and is only glimpsed in the film), are an immensely likable bunch, all with broad smiles, a stunning passion for cinema and large amounts of untapped creative potential. Without any substantive connection to anyone outside the apartment, the brothers have spent much of their lives re-enacting their favorite movies with a zeal and ingenuity that boggles the imagination (one Batman costume constructed with yoga mats and scraps cardboard looks every bit the real deal, and the fake guns that the brothers pulled together were so realistic that neighbors once summoned law enforcement). They worship Quentin Tarantino and The Dark Knight almost religiously, and they can quote some movies seemingly verbatim.
Moselle wonders at the inventiveness of the Wolfpack (which I don’t recall them ever being referred to as in the film, but the nickname is wholly appropriate) even as she probes beneath the surface to capture a deeply unusual and almost certainly dysfunctional family dynamic. Patriarch Oscar Angulo, a Peruvian immigrant opposed to work but happy to spend the money his timid wife gets from the city for home schooling the kids (the family’s only income) on alcohol, is a distinctly disturbing figure. He exercises almost tyrannical control over his wife and children, and there’s mention of physical abuse in the apartment. Often, he feels like more of a prison warden than a father.
Matriarch Susanna, a free-floating American sort, is also troubling in her passivity, but she’s seen through a more sympathetic light. One conversation between her and her mother, whom Susanna hasn’t contacted in years, is positively heartbreaking to witness. “There were more rules for me than they’re were for them,” she muses, eyes distant, to the camera.
All those rules, it’s implied, have left the children with an assortment of psychological issues, some of which The Wolfpack gets at in how the brothers interpret their beloved films. Their very manner of speech appears to have been influenced by Tarantino scripts, and the brothers identify strongly with the feelings of loneliness and rejection articulated in Halloween (one of the brothers actually dons a Michael Myers mask as a form of protection before journeying outside the cramped quarters of their home base).
What Moselle doesn’t touch on as much is how the real world holds up against what the Angulos have learned from the movies. “I feel like I’m in the Fangorn Forest from Lord of the Rings,” one says as the Wolfpack progresses through Central Park, but beyond little expressions of wonder like that, what it’s like to jump headfirst into modern society is essentially skimmed over. The approximately 80-minute documentary also neglects some other key topics, including how the Angulos avoided the interference of child protective services for the duration of the siblings’ upbringing. One wishes that the film could have painted a fuller picture of the family’s strange situation – too many questions are left unanswered for The Wolfpack to fully satisfy.
Instead, Moselle too often seems content to simply go along with the Wolfpack, and her documentary feels subsequently unfocused, without much to hang the story on other than the brothers’ quirky home videos (a cross between the “sweded” tapes of Be Kind Rewind and the lovingly reconstructed passion projects at the center of docs like Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation). Oddly, the story of how the filmmaker crossed paths with the Angulos is left untold, and there’s not much by way of narrative momentum until late in the pic, when one arc solidifies into an actual direction for the Angulos’ story. It’s hard to avoid the sensation that, had The Wolfpack been made by a documentarian with a better idea of exactly what story they wanted to tell, the final product would hold one’s attention more firmly, instead of simply gawking at a deeply atypical group of people.
Without Moselle’s applaudable initiative, though, there would be no Wolfpack, and the Angulos’ story of creative minds flourishing within lamentable confines would have remained hidden. As flawed as her film is, that it exists at all is a tribute to her tenacity and knack for knowing a good story when she sees it. There’s just no escaping that last bit – Moselle struck gold here. As a rumination on the power of the cinema and the ability of young people to craft their own freedoms despite being controlled at near every turn, The Wolfpack is one wild tale. It’s just hard not to wish it had ventured a lot further into the darker areas of the Angulos’ story.