The Wolfpack (2015) Review
Before the movie started, young director Crystal Moselle briefly introduced herself and invited all six Angulo boys to join her in front of the audience. She said that she hoped we’d enjoy the movie and tell our friends about it. Then they left, no explanation or call for questions. That was it. I didn’t know it at the time, but this moment was to be reflective of the entire experience of the film.
Moselle’s documentary follows the six boys as they talk about growing up locked away in a four-bedroom apartment on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, never leaving more than nine times a year, some years not even once. Their only understanding of the world around them came through their vast collection of films, which they would watch religiously and reenact elaborately. As the boys grew old enough, they eventually dared to leave the apartment of their own volition. Their experiences encountering the outside world, as well as their evolving relationship to their parents, is recorded.
The main focus and draw of the documentary is the boys themselves, whose spirits light up the screen. Untouched by public education and traditions, the boys created their own out of a fevered desire for truth and discovery. Innocence and contemplation, earnestness and determination flow from them, like an unstoppable river in the walls that are their banks. When the waters are unleashed on the world at last, they froth with pure joy. But in this current of the human spirit, the director gives us no canoe.
What is her tradition, her strategy? This is neither the activist documentary of Michael Moore, the investigative documentary of Errol Morris, the contemplative documentary of Werner Herzog, the surreal interventionist documentary of Joshua Oppenheimer, nor the journalistic documentary of PBS Frontline. Crystal Moselle has no structure, no chronology, no stated purpose. We are introduced to the boys, but not individually; they are a group of six with six names not assigned until the end. Their history is contextualized through interviews and archival footage, but their present is bereft of any direction.
That does not mean, however, that there’s not plenty to think about. When we learn that the boys were conceived of by a father who wanted ten sons like Krishna (and so gave them ancient Indian names), we learn of the power of religious devotion, or at least godlike narcissism. When we learn that they were locked away from the dangers of the government and socialization, we learn of the debilitating power of fear. When we see the boys’ reactions to their home being broken into by a S.W.A.T. team, or their hate of therapy, we see a generational distrust inherited from their father. When we see their mother’s support of them in all things, we see the power of her love reflected in their love for each other.
But is it enough to simply show these things? So many important questions go unanswered, even unasked. Referring to his father, one boy cryptically confesses, “Some things can never, ever be forgotten.” What is the message buried in his dark eyes? Abuse? What kind? How exactly did the mother have more rules thrust upon her than her sons, as she claims? How did they support themselves, or afford therapy? What does their therapist have to say about their living situation? Why has the father’s shroud of secrecy, fear, and envy suddenly lifted to allow these boys to flower? Mind-bogglingly, none of these things come up. No special event marks the boys’ first foray into the world. They just leave gradually, as if the door had been open the whole time. They abandon the dark, ominous ambient instrumentation of the apartment and step into the more hopeful pop songs of the city.
In an interview with Variety, Moselle states that she just walked past these guys on the sidewalk, thought they looked interesting, and ran up to talk with them. After discovering a shared deep interest in movies and hearing their story, she decided to do a documentary on them. They shot over 500 hours of footage with no story or purpose in sight. That level of immense aimlessness is abundantly clear, an abundance that leaves us empty.
Still, I can’t help but see that something really important is present in the footage although it hasn’t been addressed: These boys are the most hopeful, loving, and passionate humans I’ve seen in some time. Their determination causes them to meticulously reproduce scripts and costumes out of only paper, cereal boxes, and bits of yoga mats. They throw themselves full-heartedly into their acting, knowing no embarrassment or pride. Their creativity and potential is boundless. As they leave their prison, their passion for film explodes until they are creating their own completely original, surreal, and beautiful films and costumes. Yet their parents are regretful (even if the father avoids guilt by deflecting blame).
As I left the theater I heard people saying that it was depressing, a real downer. How sad for those poor boys to miss out on the world like that! But as I reflect on it now, it’s beautiful. Yes, there was some adversity to overcome in their given lot. But they’ve come out so strong of heart and mind, a naïve purity that could only have been produced in such isolation. The most interesting and controversial question I think we can ask ourselves—because the director certainly doesn’t ask us—is whether the parents were right.