Dir: Crystal Moselle
Magnolia Pictures, 2015, USA
A story about terrible parenting on the Lower East Side, and that’s it.
Living on welfare in a barely furnished Manhattan projects flat, Peruvian expat Oscar Angulo dreamed of having a ton of children, all with Sanskrit names, in devotion to his beloved Hare Krishna. However, following the birth of his firstborn, he began to fear that his kids would become contaminated by the drugs and the violence of the crazy outside world, succumbing to all the vice and terror of a society he describes as “a little piece of jail”. But what Oscar never realises is that he could simply teach his children to steer away from the Big Apple’s seedier side like, you know, a reasonable parent, punishing them appropriately, or acknowledging their rights to free will as human beings and conscious individuals. He could even have relocated his family to somewhere he isn’t completely terrified of. Instead, he spent fourteen years refusing to allow a single member of his family – seven kids and a wife – beyond the threshold of their front door. So much for “a little piece of jail”.
Dissent was never a possibility of those trapped beneath the rigid power structure of the Angulo family, who serve as the focus of Crystal Moselle’s documentary The Wolfpack. Through their rigidly policed upbringing, the kids knew no other way of life, and were far too timid to confront their supremely overbearing father; meanwhile, their mother had too been effectively coerced into full compliance with her husband’s totalitarianism. All have been imprisoned within a single flat since the early 1990s, so some are considerably underweight, they have bad skin, they all share the same views, and their body language and facial gestures are not in adherence to social conventions. Previously, their experience of the outside world was limited to the rare moments their father allowed them out of the house – between a maximum of nine times in a full year, and a minimum of none – and to their fanaticism of cinema; together, they own over five thousand DVDs, and frequently recreate scenes from their favourite films, such as Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and No Country for Old Men (surprisingly, some of their performances are fairly decent). Essentially, it’s a fascist state trapped in a tiny flat in Manhattan.
Then at age fifteen, the eldest brother – Mukunda – simply left, and wandered around the neighbourhood shops wearing a Michael Myers mask. Understandably, somebody phoned the police. I won’t spoil what happens next, but it results in a loosening of Oscar’s regime, and the beginning of the family’s calibration into society. Obviously, cinema plays hard and loose with realism, and so their entry into the outside world as informed by the medium is confounding for them, and brutal viewing for us.
At least, it is brutal when director Moselle bothers to do anything with the topic, as opposed to merely presenting it and allowing the story to speak for itself. She met the Angulo kids by chance in 2010 as they were walking down the street dressed like Reservoir Dogs and, after a brief chat, discovered they had been raised by pop culture and pop culture alone. That, as I’m sure anyone will agree, is the chance of a lifetime, the potential genesis for a sacred gem of documentary cinema. But while The Wolfpack is genuinely fascinating, it’s a wasted opportunity, and a waste of the five years it took Moselle to make this film. It is unstructured, it lacks depth, and at a mere 88 minutes in length, sacrifices way too much screen time to abstract shots and montages that don’t actually mean anything. Real magic could have been woven from The Wolfpack, but instead what we get is the psychological scenario of the decade with next to no insight to accompany it.
But while the movie disappoints on a technical level, it’s still a marvel to spend some time with this endlessly fascinating family which, to her credit, Moselle presents without turning them into a freak show. On that note, there are a few subtle moments in her work that are worthy of praise: for one, the onscreen reveal of Oscar is akin to that of a monster movie in the way he is initially mythologised by the other family members as this unimaginable nutcase. When he finally appears around the halfway mark, there is a definite sinister edge to him, exacerbated in part by his incoherent prattling, and his intense glare juxtaposed with a drunken sense of mental disattachment. And while the film neglects to fully delve into the story’s various interrelated anthropological issues, a vague criticism of media scaremongering is implied with Oscar’s views of the outside world, mainly in the way he transformed those views into parenting techniques. As much as it pains me to praise a job that’s clearly only half done, The Wolfpack does remain suggested viewing for anyone interested in the strange pockets of the world’s most diverse city, hiding just a layer beneath the controlled madness of society at large. Lovers of Huffington Post’s Weird News column: here is your film of 2015.
- L. G. Ball