By Nick Pinkerton
Dir. Crystal Moselle, U.S., Magnolia Pictures
For many of us, at some point in our upbringing, the movies variously played the part of babysitter, behavioral role model, playground inspiration, and substitute parent. For the six Angulo Brothers of the Lower East Side, stars of Crystal Moselle’s The Wolfpack, you might say that the movies were very nearly everything. The Angulos physically inhabit an apartment of uncertain dimensions on the sixteenth floor of one of the NYCHA’s Baruch Houses on Delancey Street, but in another sense they are first and foremost the residents of their own cinema-fed collective imagination. For most of their lives, their father, Oscar Angulo, kept the only key to the front door, and watchfully escorted them outside only a handful of times on any given year—once, not at all—while they were home-schooled by their mother, Susanne. She is a transplanted Michiganer, he a Peruvian she met on the Machu Picchu trail; they were united by the Hare Krishna faith—which accounts for the boys’ Sanskrit names and waist-length hair—and a horror of what awaited their children on the streets of New York City. Oscar, a fitfully abusive domestic tyrant who philosophically refuses to do even a day’s work, did allow the kids one indulgence, in the form of movies he brought home for them to watch. These, the Angulo boys’ only conduit to the wider world, became their obsession. They transcribed the screenplays and reenacted their favorite scenes verbatim as camera-less plays, using homemade props rigged together with cereal boxes and yoga mats and packing tape. We see them perform snippets of The Dark Knight, No Country for Old Men, Reservoir Dogs, and Pulp Fiction—favorites, one supposes, because they minimize the call for actresses—delivering pitch-perfect impressions of Heath Ledger, Steve Buscemi, and Michael Penn.
This is how life carried on for the Angulos, year in and year out. Then, one day in January of 2010, the middle child, then-15-year-old Mukunda, put on the mask they used to play Michael Myers in Halloween, and stepped outside. This watershed moment ended with Mukunda being taken into custody by the cops, after which point the officials began to intercede with Oscar’s self-made hermit kingdom, and the cloistered Angulo boys began, tentatively, to roam their neighborhood as a group. It was on one such outing, later the same year, that they encountered Crystal Moselle.
Moselle, judging from her credits and online portfolio, had to this point principally been a director of music videos and commercials, and she obviously recognized the value of her subjects when she saw them. The Angulos are without exception photogenic, handsome in a crooked sort of way that makes them all the more appealing. They have an innately flamboyant sartorial sense and a self-dramatizing flair that comes from a lifetime whiled away in amateur theatrics, and they are well-spoken to a degree that inadvertently makes a strong case for home-schooling—they may have the coiffure of Truffaut’s feral Wild Child, but they’re perfect gentlemen, all. Perhaps most remarkable, given the circumstances of their upbringing and lack of a wider social context to measure their experience against, they are circumspect and self-aware. They were, in short, star-caliber subjects.
Moselle began to film the Angulos, using their narration to shape the resulting footage into the story of six bright young men yearning to breathe free, gradually wriggling out from under the thumb of an oppressive patriarch. It is heartening to see that, in life, the Angulos have managed to distance themselves from the mephitic influence of their father, but of course The Wolfpack is a movie, and in the course of watching it there is no one that I would sooner see the Angulos free of than Moselle and her team. It isn’t that The Wolfpack doesn’t go down smooth—given the charisma of its subjects, their remarkable story, and the ready-made cinematic self-presentation that they offer a filmmaker, it could hardly be unengaging. But then, with all of the above in mind, why should it feel so curiously stretched and padded at 80 minutes?
Aside from allowing the Angulos to retell, in words and home videos, the story of their long captivity and gradual, blinking emergence into the world, Moselle tags along with them on various field trips to explore the city and points outside, including a visit to Coney Island, an apple orchard upstate, and their first movie in an honest-to-God theater: David O. Russell’s The Fighter at the Village East Cinemas. The Angulos being the Angulos, there are poignant and funny moments here and there in these scenes—one of the boys giddily fantasizing about the fact that a bit of the money from his ticket purchase might go to Russell, Mark Wahlberg, and Christian Bale, for example, which embodies the same recapturing of childlike awe toward industrial pop that figures in The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt or, for that matter, a great deal of faux-naïve, ga-ga pop journalism, and which I suspect has something to do with The Wolfpack’s crossover appeal. One wonders, though, why more has not been made, visually and intellectually, of the aspect of the Angulos story that holds the greatest intrinsic interest: their bedroom “moviemaking.”
We see only scraps of the Angulos at play, shot raggedly, antic roughhousing with just the slightest pretext of blocking. Moselle doesn’t go beyond the superficial “How creative!” novelty of the activity, never daring to visualize what this might look like through the viewfinder of the boys’ minds, nor offering any purchase on what the Angulos’ obsessive movie-love meant in terms of their inner lives, of constructing a sense of self in the absence of peers or a viably imitable father figure. I don’t doubt that the kids would’ve had good answers to these questions—again, they are extraordinarily self-aware—but they don’t seem to have been asked. Only in the vaguest of terms are we given to understand how the Angulos’ Hollywood fantasies fed into and inspired their rebellion or, conversely, the degree to which the violence in the movies they watched might have reinforced their parents’ skewed idea of the dangers posed by the outside world. (Or maybe it wasn’t so skewed—as we see from some of their vintage home movies, their apartment gave a good view of the World Trade Center circa 2000, scene of the century’s most cinematic catastrophe.) While we can gather that the Angulo boys’ relationship with the movies was a matter of shielding themselves from an unbearable reality with empowering artifice, nothing in Moselle’s film delves into the internal contradictions inherent in this quite so well as the lyrics of Black Sabbath’s “End of the Beginning,” which plays at the movie’s close. (“Is your life real or just pretend?”) While several of the Angulo brothers have camera credits on The Wolfpack, this collaboration doesn’t for the most part inform the filmmaking in any noticeable way, and only in these final moments, when under the credits we see a short film that Mukunda, now an aspiring filmmaker, shot with the help of his family, can they be seen to assert a style of their own onto the film. This material suggests that Mukunda has an affinity for surreal and symbolist imagery—earlier we see the boys piled on the bed to watch Blue Velvet together—and make one wish that The Wolfpack had the temerity to unhitch itself from its literal-minded approach.
It may be suggested that holding back a finished artwork by an Angulo brother for a late reveal, even if it is only a fumbling entry into amateur filmmaking, befits a narrative arc that takes the boys from confusion to mastery—with one too many drippy musical montages as the finish line nears. Similarly, one can explain Moselle’s eschewal of contextualizing on-screen nametags as a stylistic-thematic choice: along with the Angulos proximity in age and matching hairstyles, this makes them blend together somewhat, but in the view of the film they are as much a unit as individual, a fact reflected in its title. A slow process of individuation occurring as The Wolfpack progressed might have helped give it the shape that it currently lacks, despite the fact that the simplest and most seemingly logical organizational principle—an adherence to the chronology of the Angulos story as it unfolded before Moselle—seems to have been set aside in the editing process, toward ends which aren’t entirely clear. (Among the homemade scripts visible early on is one for The Fighter, a movie that they purportedly don’t see until rather later in the film.) Inasmuch as a structure is evident, it’s in an ethically dubious tease, a slow reveal of the extent of the abuse suffered by the Angulo family at the hands of Oscar, who gradually turns from malevolent presence to on-camera subject—but even this goes only as far as Moselle’s sense of decorum allows.
A feeling of missed opportunity haunts The Wolfpack, although it seems unlikely that the unleashed Angulos will miss their own moment. Their star quality has been recognized by no less an entity than Vice Media who, some months after the film won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, announced “plans to launch an extensive transmedia cross-promotion and social-media outreach campaign to capitalize on its following” with distributor Magnolia Pictures, per a May Variety item. And sure enough, there were Vice’s Eddy Moretti and Spike Jonze, tireless, creepy siphoners of other people’s cool, introducing The Wolfpack at its New York City premiere, with eminence grise Marky Ramone among the assembled luminaries in the crowd—not your traditional documentary rollout.
The Wolfpack is no great shakes as a doc, but it does package an irresistible product—and a rare one. True “outsider” art is a rarity in any age, but more so in the plugged-in present, when technology makes the idea of privately cultivating an idiosyncratic style very nearly obsolescent. It’s a rarity in any place, but more so in New York City—you might point to the instance of the Ramones of provincial 1970s Forest Hills, Queens, who were honestly naïve enough at first to think they were making a sound like the Bay City Rollers, or the teenaged Kuchar brothers of the Bronx, who shot their own Tinseltown epics through a distorted funhouse lens. I don’t mean to suggest, based only on a talent for no-budget improvisation, mimicry, and a passionate enthusiasm for the movies, that a great artistic destiny awaits the Angulo boys, but it will be worth watching to see what they do. And as long as they keep their own consul, I suspect they’ll be fine.