DIR: Crystal Moselle • WRI: John Green • PRO: Hunter Gray, Alex Orlovsky, Izabella Tzenkova • DOP: David Lanzenberg • ED: Enat Sidi • MUS: Danny Bensi, Saunder Jurriaans, Aska Matsumiya • CAST: Bhagavan Angulo, Govinda Angulo, Jagadisa Angulo
It was a chance encounter. Filmmaker Crystal Moselle is out and about in Manhattan and sees a pack of wannabe Reservoir Dogs lurching down First Avenue. Zany eccentrics may be plentiful in New York, but something about this group of young men – awkward yet graceful, suited, booted, Ray-Ban sunglasses and long dark hair – grabs her attention. Conversation ensues, a friendship begins, and ultimately The Wolfpack is born.
Because it turns out these particular Tarantino fans – six brothers aged 16 to 23 – have a darkly unique backstory. Victims of their Peruvian father’s paranoia about New York’s contaminating evils, the boys and their sister spent virtually their entire childhood locked in a cramped Lower East Side apartment. For fifteen years the Angulo children were home-schooled by their mother and allowed only brief, supervised ventures into the outside world. Oddly, for a man determined to protect his kids from America’s debauchery, the father had no problem at all with his children watching (and meticulously re-enacting) thousands of films, including some of the most violent Hollywood productions. Denied access to ‘reality’, the Angulo children’s knowledge of it came from movies like Pulp Fiction, Halloween, and Nightmare on Elm Street. Now if all that sounds a bit sinister, it’s because it is – the children were effectively unknowing participants in a dystopian psycho-social experiment, and The Wolfpack allows us to examine the results.
A curious case. And it’s a film that ends up prompting a curious question: how does a documentary about enforced child captivity end up being so heartwarming? Part of the answer lies with the stars of the show. Despite their airless upbringing, the siblings are bafflingly well-adjusted – reflective, articulate, with warm smiles and knowing looks, they manage to be both self-aware and endearingly naïve. But the film’s sweetish flavour is largely down to its timing, capturing as it does the brothers’ transition from nervous trepidation to wide-eyed wonder as they begin to explore the world for the first time. We learn retrospectively about the act of defiance that first undermined their father’s authority, but it’s clear that at the time of filming their integration into society is still very much a work in progress.
The Wolfpack’s uplifting glow also comes from its inversion of a common cinematic theme. Think of those Lynchian masterpieces (Wild at Heart, Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive), or recent documentaries such as The Act of Killing and Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell – explorations of our ability to wilfully retreat from a traumatic reality into fantasy, film and fiction. The Angulo kids are joyously heading in the opposite direction – emerging from their movie-inspired imaginations into a reality brimming with hope, excitement and possibility. It’s impossible not to root for them, and Moselle nicely captures the vulnerable innocence of it all.
But from a purely artistic perspective, the peculiarity of the story prevents The Wolfpack from taking its place amongst the truly great documentaries. Studies of real-life outsiders are most memorable and most affecting when we get the unsettling feeling that their subjects, for all their supposed weirdness, are perhaps not so different from ourselves – their stories and behaviour rooted in emotions, anxieties and insecurities that we all know. The Angulo children are instead simply the products of an extraordinary childhood, and while seeing them break out of their parental cage is interesting and heartening, the film was always going to struggle to transcend its specifics and tap into something more universal. So in the end we are left with a well-made curiosity – fascinating in its own way, but unlikely to live too long in the memory.
15A (See IFCO for details)