The Wolfpack (2015)
Director: Crystal Moselle
Starring: Bhagavan Angulo, Govinda Angulo, Jagadisa Angulo
When nothing tangible carries value, information is capital. On a daily basis we imbibe a heady cocktail of thoughts, feelings and opinions. Superhero fables stand in for the pantheon of the gods; tales of private grief replace religious narratives; military adventurism assumes the patina of heroism; we mistake sociopathy for strength. We have all become performers in an endless audition, locked in a parasitic embrace with the past. It becomes increasingly difficult to frame the dialectic beyond the contrivances of dramatic convention, and we find ourselves trapped under the proscenium of a bloody and rancorous pantomime. A Japanese proverb states that a man is whatever room he happens to be in; as a case in point of this phenomenon, I heard this used in an episode of Mad Men.
This predicament is crystallised rather neatly in The Wolfpack. Crystal Moselle’s film tells the story of the Angulo family, whose six sons and one daughter occupy a cramped apartment in the grim Seward Park Extension housing project in Manhattan’s lower east side. The family operates as a sort of hermetic order; the children are homeschooled and forbidden from leaving the apartment by the family’s remote patriarch. Their only connection to the world beyond is their TV and an exhaustive movie collection. They experience everything entirely through the prism of entertainment; they transcribe and catalogue their vast home entertainment library according to a set of arcane criteria; they make elaborate costumes and recreate scenes from films like Reservoir Dogs (1992) and The Dark Knight (2008) verbatim. But as the boys enter adolescence, they begin to look outwards. Emboldened by their 15-year-old brother Mukunda, who is the first to venture out onto the streets, the boys begin to chafe against the proscriptions of their father. This band of mass media-reared Kasper Hausers steps tentatively into a world which ‘looks like 3-D’ but rarely corresponds to the comforting structures of the movies.
The Wolfpack offers a provocative case study in the effects of screen violence in the family home; the oft-cited justification of child protection which led to films like The Exorcist (1973) being banned on home video in this country until 1999. One would assume that the Angulo boys’ steady diet of stylised violence would have callused their developing brains. But far from being a ravening pack of wolves, the boys are sweet-natured, if emotionally stunted by influences larger than the movies they consume. They are articulate and intellectually curious, clearly capable of making a distinction between what they see and how they are expected to behave. Their recreations constitute a form of communion with a world from which they have been barred; they imitate the look and locutions of what they see, but no further; everything is viewed from a remove.
What is brought to the fore throughout the boys’ performances is the absolute lack of awareness that attends them; it is an entirely mimetic exercise which underscores quite powerfully the role of context in art. Much of the potency of Tarantino et al. is contingent on an understanding of the forms he and his ilk are seeking to splice and subvert, and a social framing for that cynicism. The success of an image relies on the credulity or complicity of its audience, and the boys are totally divorced from these cultural touchstones.
As affecting as their story undoubtedly is, there are moments for pause in The Wolfpack which engender a certain suspicion: To what extent is the documentary an extension of the performance? Are the moments of sincerity confected, emulating the inflections of some screen titan sedulously observed? Though it has no obvious thesis, The Wolfpack sketches the ambiguous role movies play in the boys’ lives; they are a portal to possible worlds, but also a means of pacification; the frame of the window is as impenetrable as that of the TV screen. Moselle gently probes the fraught family dynamic and explores the line between protection and control, though the mother’s and daughter’s stories feel underexplored.
In more calculating hands, The Wolfpack could have been something akin to American Movie (1999), a knowing glimpse into a world of fringe eccentricity which can’t help but snigger behind its hand as its subjects. Moselle keeps the tone admirably straight-faced, honouring the tradition of the Maysles Brothers and Frederick Wiseman in her commitment to maintaining observer status. Moselle hangs back and allows this troubling and strangely touching story to unfold; in their absence of inhibition, the family proves to be a gift for this approach. One has to wonder exactly how the brothers will handle their new-found celebrity status, if they will wade wide-eyed into the deep, dark waters of public visibility. What is certain is that cine-literacy will be insufficient to protect them.