Review: The Wolfpack

By : June 21, 2015

New York City is loaded with oddities, and director Crystal Moselle has picked a doozie in making a documentary film about the Angulo family.

The Wolfpack is an interesting and engaging documentary, intriguing in what it shows and intriguing in what it intimates.

The Wolfpack is what six brothers name themselves, in homage to Marvel Comics and Hollywood, when they finally venture out into New York City after spending almost their entire lives inside a cramped public housing apartment, watching and re-enacting movies.

A captivity narrative

The film is essentially raw material for a psychological study of a family under a particular kind of stress. New York City offers stress in more flavors and combinations than Pinkberry ever dreamed of, but the stress of the Angulo family is all about claustrophobic living conditions with little contact with the outside world, a family reclusion imposed by a repressive father and abetted by a helpful but helpless mother.

Yet somehow, mostly because of certain decisions by the director, this seems by the end to be a feel-good movie. The emphasis seems mostly on how well the boys are able to begin getting past their distorted upbringing, with the ominous signs muted. Yes, they will likely have problems adjusting to social involvement and compensating for a possibly non-existent home schooling, but the film emphasizes their joy at first experiencing walking on a beach, lying on park grass, and picking apples.

The brothers

Despite their virtual captivity and frightening father, the siblings apparently maintain their cheeriness, playfulness, and cooperation. No sibling rivalry is apparent here, and the boys seem devoted to their mother.

One might think that so much film viewing would make the exterior world irresistibly attractive to the boys, by glamorizing myriad experiences and places and things, by showing the richness of human interaction with strangers and friends, and by having real girls.

But the boys focus less on the worlds that feature films depict or invent, and more on the films themselves qua films — films as screenplays, archetypal and mythic scenes, story sequences. Their time-consuming transcriptions of dialog while watching films over and over, and their laborious re-enactments of films, suggests that they are happiest in mediated experiences, happiest being other people.

That makes them artists, I guess. What matters is how something is imaginatively transformed, not how it actually is to a literalist.

In acting out film re-creations, their preference is for violent crime and superhero films. That taste is probably natural for growing boys, not to mention true for contemporary American adult males, who have a bizarre interest in watching films with comic-book heroes, films that a few years ago would have bored anyone over the age of 12 or 13.

But the boys’ relentless interest in gunfights and macho gangster tough talk also suggests that they are unconsciously paralleling their father’s fear of the external world, and their mother’s vague distrust of social contacts in schools.

Home schooling

Our understanding of the family largely depends on the editing, of course, on what footage we are given. The film offers no details about how family gets money (presumably some combination of public assistance programs) or what home schooling happens.

None of the scenes suggests that any real “home schooling” actually happens, unless (thinking as a family lawyer rather than as an educator) you assert that the boys’ activities are “self-directed, project-based theatre studies.” The parents seem unlikely teachers, to say the least.

The boys are charming, but their frequent smiling while mentioning discomforting facts is unsettling. Is that a submission-signal defense mechanism developed in the presence of a repressive and sometimes drunk or violent father? Is it a sign of inadequate socialization?

Documentary style

The Wolfpack has no voice over for continuity or for expressing the director’s viewpoint, so it is mostly observational, but some family statements are clearly responses to interview questions, not spontaneous, and family members sometimes talk to the filmmaker or a second person behind the camera. The Wolfpack is non linear, a time-shifting mix of home movies and Crystal Moselle’s footage, some re-creating the boys’ earlier re-creations of films, and some following their forays into the city.

If everything is political, what is political here?

The family would doubtless infuriate Tea Party viewers. The father is an immigrant who refuses to work and prevents his wife from seeking work, who fathers seven children, and who apparently subsists on public housing and a few other forms of welfare.

I do not think that most Tea Party viewers will be at all mollified by the fact that the father rationalizes his refusal to work as defiance of government (which he says wants to turn everyone into robots) or by the children being theoretically home schooled.

That is quite an irony: the father’s repression of the family on the grounds that he is sheltering them from government repression. The father insists that he wanted his sons to find out who they are, but retarded that discovery. Rather than discovering themselves, they spent time learning film roles.

Bringing Hollywood DVDs home is no substitute for encouraging contact with people and nature, and how is anyone going to understand himself or herself without experiencing the rest of the world? Bringing home a computer and some books would help.

By the end of the film we see the boys barely beginning their self discoveries. We all wish them well, but we also know better than they do how ill prepared they are.

Filed Under: Film

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