Film Cubs

The Wolfpack
(USA, 84 min.)
Dir. Crystal Moselle
Krsna Angulo, Jagadisa Angulo, Bhagavan Angulo, Mukunda Angulo, Narayana Angulo and Govinda Angulo in The Wolfpack, a Video Services Corp release. Photo courtesy of Video Services Corp.

The Angulo brothers had an unconventional upbringing: they grew up in a cave. Their dad locked his six boys up away from the world, up high in a New York City apartment, and refused to let them outside. They experienced life through the light and images flickering throughout their drab, dingy apartment. No, they don’t live in Plato’s cave—they just have the oddest, most devoted film club ever caught on film. Yes, these six boys grew up on a diet of Hollywood flicks and they learned about life through one outlet: the movies.

Director Crystal Moselle gets some laudable access to the Angulo family and goes inside their apartment to film let the boys—Bhagavan, Govinda, Narayana, Mukunda, Krsna, and Jagadisa—star in their own film, The Wolfpack, which won the Grand Jury Prize for Documentary at Sundance this year. Moselle offers nearly five years’ worth of footage as she explores the unconventional upbringing forced upon the boys by their father, Oscar, as they watch movies and use film as a vehicle to explore the world that they know exists outside. They even escape the cave and venture out into the wilderness—it turns out that the world isn’t such a scary place. It’s a fascinating subject, like Nell meets Room meets the high school a/v club.

The Wolfpack looks at this world within a world with an ethnographer’s eye as Moselle observes the lifestyle and behaviour of a different pack of animals. An element of novelty overrides The Wolfpack, though, and the film invites equal parts of laughter and empathy. The boys are strange, but the film never fully gets inside their heads even though the range of material is intimate and expansive.

The boys, some of whom are young men, aren’t especially different from everyday film geeks raised on David Lynch and Quentin Tarantino: they love movies and they love to re-create their favourite films in between bouts of discussing and debating the best that film has to offer. Many of these re-creations of films like Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, however, are fastidiously spot-on since the boys have pored over these films so many times that they’re like sacred texts to them. The performances and archival snippets are oddities of ritual, play, and education. Above all, however, The Wolfpack shows how film has the power to enlighten and inspire us: it’s an empowering force, as the boys grow into prolific young artists who recognize the artifice of the world to which their father confines them. If only the boys of The Wolfpack could meet Greg and Earl from Me and Earl and the Dying Girl!

The Wolfpack smartly differs from other film geek narratives, however, since the boys reveal that they clearly see the distinction between the fiction they watch in the movies and the pseudo-reality of the world they live in. Unlike other stories and studies that suggest that lovers of escapism fail to distinguish art from life, The Wolfpack lets the subjects draw a fine line between life and escapism. This revelation, which comes relatively early in the film, furthers the boys’ ability to see that the sheltered world of the apartment is just as fake as Gotham City.

This revelation comes off as rather muted since Moselle’s study of the boys began after they started venturing out into the world on their own. The film lacks the cathartic moment in which the boys learn that the world they live in is a lie, and the more one realizes that the action Moselle captures isn’t an entirely candid glimpse into a world of blissful and tragic ignorance, The Wolfpack begins to feel more and more like a dramatic reconstruction. This gap ironically situates the film into a kind of ethnographic filmmaking à la Nanook of the North in which shots and actions are largely staged for dramatic effect. The dramatic recreations of the boys’ favourite movies somewhat lose their meaning when one realizes that the camera comes into the home long after the end point of the Plato’s cave parable.

There’s a lot more to this story than one sees in this doc. Perhaps it’s Moselle’s introduction to the boys after they themselves have answered the biggest questions of their upbringing—she encountered them during one of their early jaunts outside—that gives the film its unsatisfying lack of an emotional pull. Alternatively, the film mostly frustrates for the questions that Moselle doesn’t ask the boys or their parents. The Wolfpack impresses for the access that the Angulos provide into their lives, but this compromise sometimes keeps the study too safe and respectful: only once does the filmmaker ask Oscar—a drunken tyrant who refuses to work because of alleged government conspiracies—if he was too hard on his family and has any regrets. The film also misses a terrific opportunity with the boys’ mother, Susanne, who seems to be waking up to the fact that the world she and Oscar created for the kids is much worse than the world from which they try to shelter them. (One notable phone call with her mother never sees further consideration.) There’s a great thread with Susanne that never quite gets the attention that it needs. Why these parents want to shelter themselves from society is a question in itself that demands a film.

The Wolfpack nevertheless lets the Angulo boys star in their own movie and the result provides a kind of poetic justice to the childhood they never really had. The film shows the power of movies to shape, entertain, and inspire as they boys share their own funny home movies and evolve into future filmmakers.

Rating: ★★★ (out of ★★★★★)

The Wolfpack screens in Ottawa at The ByTowne until July 14.