Why do we like movies?
The simplest, most baseline, ninth-grade answer is that it allows us to experience a reality different from our own, that they allow us to imagine another person’s existence, real or fictional. In doing so, the goal is that we see at least some part of ourselves and therefore can theoretically be better at empathizing with others in our own reality. But what happens to this framework when our film presents people with an existence so harsh that they themselves can only escape from it by watching other movies? That’s the question posited by director Crystal Mozelle’s documentary, The Wolfpack.
The Wolfpack introduces us to the Angulo family, six brothers in their teens and early twenties who grew up in near complete isolation from the outside world. The oldest brother, Mukunda, reports that growing up they would leave the confines of their Lower East Side apartment a maximum of nine times a year if they were lucky, as ordered by their father who held the only key to the front door. (Answers to all the legal questions you’re probably asking right now are here.) Held inside their dwelling, the boys’ only interaction with the outside world is through their DVDs, and they eventually take to writing the scripts from memory and acting out entire films using homemade props and costumes, a practice they continue even after they begin breaking the rules and going outside. The brothers are fascinating characters in such a weird and interesting story; however, it’s questionable whether the film makes the best usage of its subjects.
Mozelle achieves her initial goal of making us like the Angulo brothers at first glance.
The primary response to meeting Mukunda, Govinda, Bhagavan, Narayana, Jagadisa and Krsna is that they actually seem like decent dudes. They’re wildly creative, play music, and are passionate about their art. Other than some awkwardness that’s not far from normal teenage social issues, the boys seem like perfectly normal young men that you may want to hang out with. The film would have you believe this is a result of their own resiliency aided by the magic of movies, but one can’t help but feel it’s more the result of selective editing.
Only a few times do we we see an Angulo brother express openly hostile anger and distrust of the outside world: once when the state tries to force the children to attend a normal school, and once when police come in looking for weapons, only to find props. Both of these threads are dropped immediately after being mentioned, which indicates that there are likely more results of cult-like brainwashing left on the cutting room floor because they make the brothers seem less relatable.
The film’s treatment of the boys’ father, Oscar, is at once confusing and fascinating. Through the beginning of the film, we are presented with stories about Oscar, how he believed he was God, how he refused to work to fight against the system, how he would hit the boys’ mother, and how he encouraged the boys to form a band, because this is a man who would consider Joe Jackson a role model. Throughout this time, distorted video footage and old faded photographs of unhappy people with dead-eyed stares flicker across screen, demonizing the parents and especially Oscar.
The boys even refer to Oscar in the past tense, until it is revealed that he is not only alive, he’s also just in the other room. From this point on, the film makes Oscar… well, I won’t go so far as to say he seems “sympathetic”, but it stops overtly villainizing him. Oscar isn’t presented as a monster, but as a scared, drunk old man who can barely speak in coherent sentences, who has had all his power and authority stripped from the moment the boys began walking outside on their own. I understand what the movie was going for – illustrating that the bad guys are not always as overt in real life as they are in films. However, because this is real life, we can still say “wait, no, Oscar’s still abusive, he’s clearly the bad guy” and that detracts from the message.
The film’s other strangest point is how it marks the passage of time – or rather doesn’t.
We are told that the rebellion begins when Mukunda is inspired to walk outside by himself sometime after seeing The Dark Knight, so sometime after December 2008. The boys are later seen going to their first movie in theaters on Valentine’s Day 2011, when they see The Fighter. (Ironically, also a film about real-life brothers who have a documentary made about them.) What’s unclear is what happens between those times, and exactly how much time passes after from scene to scene. When the youngest brother says “we were afraid of going on trains,” are we watching their first train ride? Obviously not, because they know how to use the NYC train system, but is this their first trip to Coney Island? Is this their first time at the beach? Not knowing what’s happened beforehand, or knowing even how we got access to the Angulo house, weakens the communication of the story to the audience. Again, I see the logic here, that we are entering a world where time is only marked by movie releases like the boys have lived, but it’s a massive failing in understanding what the audience is seeing.
The Wolfpack still manages to captivate and entertain, mainly due to the incredibly interesting protagonists. It’s easy to cheer for the Angulos, because in them we see ourselves at our most enthusiastic. Their love of film is what draws you in, but it’s their enthusiasm for life that captures your attention, and the film is best when it merges the two together. One highlight is watching a middle brother ecstatic to the point of tears from the simple act of paying for a movie ticket.
However, there’s an underlying darkness and sadness to the story of the boys’ “escape”, in that it’s debatable whether they actually did or not. Other than Mozelle herself, we only see the boys interact with non-Angulo people twice, and one doesn’t seem particularly successful. They’re still secluded together, but now they can be secluded together at the beach! Even their love of movies is an extension of Oscar’s control over them, because he’s the one bringing them into the house, he’s the one selecting the movies that get watched. After meeting Oscar, however, it’s pretty hard to believe he puts much thought into his curation.
Possibly as a result of this, the film still doesn’t go far enough into the most interesting aspect of the boys’ story: learning how life actually works and conflicts with movie logic. Mukunda tells a story of how he wore his home-made Michael Myers mask the first time he went outside the house by himself, so that no one would know who he was. Of course, a young man walking around Manhattan in a mask eventually leads to a police call, but to someone who had only experienced the world through the IMDB top 100, that makes perfect sense. One of the brothers appears to have a girlfriend by the end of the film, but she never speaks. What’s it like dating a man whose only ideas about love and relationships come from movies? (Especially since there don’t seem to be any romance films in the family collection.) These are the fascinating parts, these are the part where the audience can connect the most. The Wolfpack is a strong documentary and an amazing look at a bizarre family. I just wish it ran on all cylinders more often.Liked This? Share It!