Crystal Moselle must’ve had an easy time pitching her first feature-length documentary, The Wolfpack, to financiers and film festivals alike. A chance encounter on the streets of New York saw her ensconced in the lives of the Angulo family; a family of six brothers (and one largely-unseen sister) raised – so the publicity materials tell us – on movies. Restricted to their New York apartment for the entirety of their childhood, the brothers – Bhagavan, Govinda, Krsna, Jagadisa, Mukunda and Narayana – grew up with an archive of thousands of movies and a penchant for recreating films like The Dark Knight, Reservoir Dogs, and other films found in the upper echelons of IMDB’s Top 250.
It’s a compelling pitch, but does the product live up to its premise? The Wolfpack opens with an extended recreation of Reservoir Dogs – remarkably charming, given the subject matter – which belies the traumatic connotations of the boys’ circumstances. That’s indicative of Moselle’s approach to the material, which eschews overdramatisation and insight alike for a low-key, lightweight portrait of this thoroughly unconventional family.
The Wolfpack is at its most effective at evoking the liminal qualities of the Angulo apartment, a space distinct from the outside world yet never entirely divorced. The documentary’s best moments are spent gazing out of the apartment’s window to the bustling streets below – a sight that must have stood as a perpetual reminder of the boys’ lack of freedom for the years they spent confined to the apartment. Yet the film itself seems unready to bridge the gap between the outside world and the dusty apartment, lingering in its corridors while refusing to examine the deep shadows in its corners and crevices.
The largest shadow is cast by the Angulo patriarch, Oscar, whose somewhat deranged, Hare Krishna-inspired ideology impelled his children’s imprisonment. He remains unseen until roughly halfway through the film, at which point he offers little more than mumbled apologies. The Wolfpack’s reluctance to place Oscar at the centre of the narrative is understandable; we do not need another story of abuse overshadowed by the abuser. (It also mirrors one of the brother’s own words: “I gave up on facing my father.”) And yet … Moselle seems disinterested in either understanding or indicting Oscar’s actions, and over the course of the documentary it creates a sense of purposelessness.
That purposelessness is, in part, deliberate; the mosaic, non-linear collection of footage actively resists condensing into a straightforward narrative of redemption or the like. It’s often difficult to distinguish between the six boys, or to determine when a scene was filmed; we rely on the over-used, emotive score to connect to the situation. But while this alluring, ethereal sense of a space outside of time is the film’s strongest feature, the reluctance to push towards a deeper meaning leaves The Wolfpack feeling overly adrift. Who are these boys? What truly compelled their father to imprison them for so long, and what are the consequences of their upbringing?
These are questions that cry out for answers; the issue is not so much that the answers don’t exist, but that The Wolfpack doesn’t seem to want to find them. “I was fifteen years old,” says one of the brothers, “and I wasn’t allowed to walk out my front door.” That can’t be normal, and yet the film emphasises their normalcy; even in interviews, Moselle blithely defends the boys as well-adjusted. Perhaps they are – but given the stories we are told of a boy wandering New York in a makeshift Michael Myers mask, or their fervent refusal to attend school even after Oscar relaxes his grip, it’s hard not to feel that the portrait provided is incomplete.
The Wolfpack is still an interesting, worthy film. Its unique pitch got it distributed, and it’ll keep audiences engaged. But there’s another story waiting to be told here; a story of the boys’ lives after they truly leave the apartment, or of the true nature of their lives behind locked doors. Instead we get a half-story, compelling in tone but lacking in resolution (perhaps reflecting Moselle’s history as a short-film documentarian; this would’ve made a killer non-fiction short). I wanted to see past the prop guns and cereal-box costumes for some insight into the reality of the Angulo family, but it seems the closest we can get to that truth is a makeshift Batman staring down into a bustling metropolis; layers of artifice damaged but unpierced.