Director: Crystal Moselle
Running Time: 1 hour 30 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
There's a startling moment in Crystal Moselle's documentary The Wolfpack, where the six brothers who've mostly been trapped inside their Manhattan apartment their entire lives, recreate the opening song and dance number from The Nightmare Before Christmas. Donning home-made costumes while lighting a fire inside their cramped living quarters, it becomes increasingly clear that their adoration of movies may in some senses be a rebel cry against their domineering father. However, this moment, which is fraught with ritualistic joy as well as disturbing danger, is short-lived. Instead of adopting an inquisitive approach to such a scene, Moselle opts for impressionism, which may in fact be praised for it's fly-on-the-wall intimacy. Truthfully, the film already carries with it the hype of expectations, winning the Grand Jury Prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival and making it's subjects into cult-ready icons. Still, Moselle seems to think that the inherent strangeness of the situation and the affable personalities of her subjects will overcome a limited perspective, and while The Wolfpack has moments of bizarre power and surprising humor, it never dares to go beyond a simplistic reading of a complicated scenario.
The film follows the Angulos; Mukunda, Ksna, Jagadisa, Govinda, Bhagavan, and Narayana as they attempt to find normalcy by recreating scenes from their favorite films while being homeschooled by their mother and forbidden to leave their apartment by their elusive father. The access granted to Moselle is both a blessing and a curse; as she's able to capture moments of unguarded pain and creative naivete only teenagers without a grip on the outside world can conjure, but she also refuses to investigate her subject's predicament. The Angulos obsession with movies; particularly Tarantino's back catalog, creates an intriguing paradigm in which they reenact the script word for word, scene for scene, while dressing up and adopting appropriate accents. While watching them stage famous bits from Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs is undeniably engaging, the film never gets into why these are the types of films they latch onto and just how they've come to amass such a huge collection. It's hinted that their father Oscar, a recluse who abhors traditional society, planted the seeds for their love of cinema, but he remains an inconclusive patriarchal figure. Instead of asking the tough questions, Moselle simply layers a moody score over home video footage of Oscar, presenting him as a possibly abusive boogeyman and his wife (a former hippie from the Midwest) as an unfortunate casualty of his worldview. This sense of foreboding finds its functionality in how the six brothers (all pretty indistinguishable, which is probably the point) eventually gain their independence and desire to explore beyond the confines of their claustrophobic home. As subjects, the Angulo clan are bright, socially awkward, and similar to a lot of other nerdy teens who feel like outcasts. Only here, societal ostracism is due to being sheltered from the mundane horrors of everyday New York existence.
Strangely, the very rules that Moselle sets up early on in the film; the sense of fear and paranoia the boys feel from disobeying their father's wishes, simply falls by the wayside later on. It's odd that when each of them respectively decides to leave and venture into the world at large, Oscar doesn't seem that phased by it. Instead, he not only allows them to leave, but also shares in their experiences. All of this, among other socio-economic and psychological issues, feels underdeveloped to the point of exacerbation. If Moselle simply wanted to create an atmospheric mood piece rather than an investigative expose, then that's clearly her right, but it ultimately does a disservice to her subjects. This is a story in which we as the audience should know just how Moselle came in contact with these brothers and the trajectory that led them to eventually break free. Instead, the film feels incomplete and rushed, with shaky timelines and nervous editing replacing clarity.
This is all a shame, of course, since the Angulo brothers are a fascinating mixture of wide-eyed optimism, closeted insecurities, and unchecked creativity longing to expand their horizons. Maybe one day they will all make their own films. Maybe they will sink into domestic life and raise families. Maybe they will take square desk jobs and become everything their father despises. Either way, their complex life experiences demand a more thorough examination than a film like The Wolfpack ultimately provides.