About half an hour into The Wolfpack, Crystal Moselle’s camera peeks through a crack in one of the doors of the Angulo family’s cluttered Lower East Side Manhattan apartment. Here, for the first time in the present day, we see the family patriarch, Oscar Angulo, a Peruvian Hindu who purportedly raised and homeschooled a family of seven long-haired kids within the confines of his home alongside his wife Susanne for 15 years, essentially excluding them from the outside world. In contrast to earlier-shown home videos of Oscar – excitedly teaching his children various games, dances, and showing them instruments in their childhood – the embittered, slumped man in front of the TV in the present sits far more in line with the children’s description of Oscar as a volatile and alcoholic authoritarian. Moselle’s trepidation only reinforces this hearsay image.
Oscar is branded the film’s antagonist, with the entire story is told by Susanne and the 6 boys of the family: Bhagavan, Govinda, Narayana, Makunda, Krisna, and Jagadesh, all named after Hindu deities. This storytelling occurs both directly to the camera as well as through the aforementioned home video footage. After meeting in Machu Picchu – following Hari Krishna and traveling around the world and the United States – Oscar and American ‘flower-child’ Susanne settled in New York City with their already growing family in the mid-1990s. After getting to know the city’s crime and drug infestation, they took a bold step to confining their children to their apartment. When Susanne became certified as a homeschool educator and the family’s only breadwinner, she also became informally chained to their interior homestead, leaving Oscar as the only one that ever got to venture outside the building. Yet it’s more than implied that Oscar is an argumentative as well as abusive husband whose measures were set to suppressive lengths.
Towards the end of the film, as the power dynamics of the household have markedly shifted, Susanne calls and speaks to her mother for the first time in over a decade. The celebratory excitement of self-accomplishment she expresses feels forced and in this it’s impossible to ignore the implications that the scene of her children meeting their 88-year-old grandmother for the first time. Her husband has created a world where he has damaged and limited the experiences of his family in such a drastic way that only becomes properly evident in this scene. By this stage of the film, Oscar gets as little screen time as the boys’ elder sister, Visnu, – who suffers from learning disorders and is rarely seen even making her way through a hallway – as the shifting power dynamics of the film become far clearer.
If the film totally relied on this captivity narrative, it would be both a miserable and a short film. It evades this through a primary focus is on the boys, with their fascination with recorded tapes of American blockbuster films leading them to start staging and filming replicas with cardboard guns and Batman armour made of eggshell crates. Even when one of the brothers presents his transcriptions of the films saying that reenacting them “feels like I’m living”, Moselle avoids framing their passion as simple escapism. As Bhagavan, the eldest, recounts leaving the apartment for the first time while Oscar was out, he shows the self-made Michael Meyers costume and mask that he wore (sans knife) as he ducked in and out of shops and roamed downtown Manhattan in broad daylight before being picked up by the police. Darkly comical as it is, this one act of defiance was how the kids got the freedom to start going outside again, sometimes dressed up, sometimes not. Traipsing around in black overcoats and sunglasses as the eponymous sextet from Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs was how Moselle claims to have discovered them in the first place.
If The Wolfpack isn’t remembered as one of 2015’s best or worst films, or best of worst or worst of best, it definitely should be remembered as one of the year’s strangest. As a documentary about a reclusive family now run mostly by its sons – two of which are twin wannabe filmmakers, – The Wolfpack is an oddly crafted fable that examines poetic license and demonstrates the limits of nonfiction in a character study dominated by persona. The biggest question about the film is its greatest charm, and its greatest weaknesses are its most fascinating aspects. Asking that unasked question—whether or not the Angulo family’s story is actually a hoax, or worse, a mockumentary— could be considered a part of the film’s meta-narrative. The answer hardly matters because the actual narrative is entirely in the hands of its subjects. Moselle’s wordless patience is excessive in her attempt to gently peel back her characters’ emotional and psychological layers of their shy, eclectic personalities and familial synergy. It’s a gamble that never quite pays off: the film feels unguided by anyone other than its subjects, and the kids eagerly take over, sort of like that projector scene in Gremlins 2, I guess.
Still, this stagnation creates an accidental ambiguity, a departure at and for which interesting things start to happen: Moselle doesn’t dissect persona and present a real-life version of Dogtooth, but lets the boys finally pursue what they’ve only dreamt of doing in producing their homemade Hollywood replications. After years of making others’ movies their own, they essentially make their own movie with Moselle. In this sense The Wolfpack really does become the inspirational narrative about spiritual perseverance and creative liberation that it claims to be, right through to and beyond its ending. Even after the things we see them accomplish, like taking a day trip outside the city, going to an actual cinema, getting jobs, producing their first short film, or even Govinda’s renting his own apartment and moving out of the house, the palpable uncertainty that hangs about the family leaves one asking what damage is undoable, as well as how far they’re bound to go to undo it, and how far they’ll go, period. Because they are going places.1
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