Review – The Wolfpack
If genetics are definitive in the development of a child, then parenting is a form of gambling. During adolescence, and into adulthood, a person is the culmination of the risks a parent takes; billions of glorious mistakes wander the Earth. The Wolfpack examines what happens when a mother and father roll the dice with the lives of seven children raised in a four-bedroom apartment in New York City, for fourteen years, with little contact with the outside world.
Filmmaker Crystal Moselle enters the lives of the Angulo family’s seven children–brothers Mukunda, Narayana, Govinda, Bhagavan, Krisna, and Jagadesh, and their sister Visnu–in the aftermath of 15 year-old Mukunda’s decision to venture outside the apartment against his father’s will. An act of rebellion starts a revolution amongst the siblings and Moselle is there to capture the boys grappling with their newfound independence. Moselle allows the boys to tell the story of their childhood; she doubles as a filmmaker and an ad hoc child psychologist over the course of The Wolfpack. In the beginning the boys approach Moselle’s camera as you’d expect of a teenager, forever glancing sideways, an overcompensating smile, hunched over and guarded. Trust is being earnt in an environment where it has been exploited.
As Moselle is earning the trust of the brothers so too is she establishing a tone. It’s revealed that the Angulo brothers’ primary contact with the outside world has been movies. Forced to stay inside throughout their youth, and when not being home-schooled, they watched hundreds of movies. Curiosity turns to obsession as they begin to make handwritten scripts of their favourites, pausing each scene to get the dialogue correct. The scripts are used to recreate the movies they adore in a similar fashion to the ‘sweeded’ versions of cinema in Michel Gondry’s Be Kind Rewind. Soundtracks are played live using tape recorders, realistic looking weaponry is made from cereal boxes, and performances are delivered with pitch perfect mimicry – their Public Fiction is flawless. The Angulo brothers trusting Moselle with the footage of their passion projects is an acknowledgment of respect. She also has access to home movies of the family, showing most of the siblings as toddlers, which is intercut throughout The Wolfpack to offer a haunting glimpse into the past where the parents’ rule was absolute. Moselle in-turn chooses not to side with a tone that ridicules the Angulo brothers. A sin of the documentary format is for filmmakers to remain the constant outsider, which then makes it easier for subjects to be mocked, but Moselle never crosses the line and remains embedded like a eighth sibling. The Angulo brothers’ fandom is infectious but Moselle doesn’t rest The Wolfpack on the power of cinema to save these young men; a very brisk and easy surface read of the film. Through the conversations Moselle has with the boys, particularly Mukunda, we learn how movies helped them process difficult times. Roger Ebert’s take on film comes to mind “movies are like a machine that generates empathy”. Moselle is able to get the brothers to articulate what the movies mean to them, and you see how it influences their personality and attire with gangster clothes ripped from the racks of The Godfather and Goodfellas. The Angulo brothers experience with movies is a coping mechanism but it never completely defines who are they are despite the focus given to this element of their story.
The sins of the parents is the large spectre that hovers over the film and there are maternal and paternal forces at war that are never fully explored, mainly because Moselle isn’t focused on airing the Angulos’ darkest secrets. There are raw emotions at play that briefly pass by, especially from Mrs Angulo, who is clearly conflicted over what has transpired but painfully aware of what her children have endured, but Moselle never sensationalises the situation to completely condemn. Sure, Mr Angulo has a lot to answer for, but when Moselle starts showing the brothers’ lives beyond the apartment, you see them thriving in a world they barely know. Something in this crazy setup worked. Moselle has managed to capture the minutia of what builds a personality in an extreme situation. The parenting gamble payed-off, even though the Angulos owe most of it to chance, the will of a brotherhood, and a little Quentin Tarantino.
The Popcorn Junkie