D: Crystal Moselle / 90m
With: Mukunda Angulo, Narayana Angulo, Govinda Angulo, Susanne Angulo, Oscar Angulo, Bhagavan Angulo, Krsna Angulo, Jagadesh Angulo, Visnu Angulo
If you were in Manhattan’s Lower East Side around 2010 and saw six siblings walking around looking like stand-ins for the cast of Reservoir Dogs, then chances are you were looking at the Angulo brothers. You might have been amused by the way they were dressed, but what you wouldn’t have known was that this was very likely the first time the brothers had been out of their 16th-storey four-bedroom apartment – by themselves. The brothers – Mukunda, twins Govinda and Narayana, Bhagavan, Krsna, and Jagadesh – had previously been confined to their home – along with their sister, Visnu – by their father, Oscar, and only allowed out with their mother, Susanne, for doctors’ appointments. Home-schooled by their mother, the children had grown up without friends or relatives to offset their confinement, but in a remarkable twist – given that Oscar’s reason for keeping them at home was to ensure they didn’t fall victim to the city’s dangers – was to provide them with movies, lots and lots of movies (at one point the brothers estimate they have around 5,000 VHS tapes and DVDs).
Access to these movies proved to be the children’s saving grace. With the kind of passion only children can bring to a situation, they began to make their own versions of their favourite movies, including the aforementioned Reservoir Dogs, and The Dark Knight. By painstakingly writing down each line in the movie and memorising them, and then creating their own props and costumes, the brothers recreated the look and feel of these movies, and in doing so created a world in which their confinement could be endured. One year they even made their own horror movie featuring Freddy Krueger and Michael Myers.
Their reclusive lifestyle began to crumble when, in 2010, Mukunda decided one day to leave the apartment by himself. Worried that he might be spotted by his father, he did what any concerned teenager would do in those circumstances: he wore a disguise. The only problem was the disguise he chose was a cardboard approximation of Michael Myers’ Halloween mask. The locals called the police and Mukunda ended up in a mental ward for the next two weeks before being allowed home. His “escape” proved to be the catalyst for several key events: the boys began going out together (which is how they met Moselle), Susanne contacted her mother for the first time after thirty years (something Oscar had insisted she not do), and in time, Mukunda found a job and moved out. With their father’s controlling approach to their lives broken, the brothers, and their mother, have now begun to spread their wings.
The Wolfpack is one of the most fascinating, and frustrating, documentaries of recent years. It’s fascinating because it looks at a family that has existed for nearly fifteen years under what amounts to house arrest, and frustrating because it raises many questions it doesn’t answer. In presenting the Angulo’s story, Moselle – who in 2010 was a graduate of New York’s School of Visual Arts – has chosen to rely on archive footage filmed by the Angulo brothers themselves to illustrate their back story, while using first person interviews and contemporary footage to provide context and further explanations of their unusual lifestyle. But as we don’t get to hear the questions that Moselle asks, some of the responses, while remarkably insightful, are strangely perfunctory; the brothers often sound like they’re reciting lines from the movies they’ve seen.
The relationship between the brothers and their parents doesn’t yield any better results. Oscar is controlling and suspicious of the outside world, but we never really get to know why (it’s possible he doesn’t know himself any more). He makes claims about his ability to influence people, but his appearance belies this, as does his refusal to work because it would make him “a slave to society”. However, Susanne has been so complicit in her husband’s willingness to “retire” from society that she has to bear an equal responsibility for their particular withdrawal from the wider world. But neither Moselle nor the brothers address this in any purposeful way, leaving the moment when she talks to her mother less affecting than it should be. Oscar is seen wandering the apartment from time to time, and makes vague justifications for his actions, and while it becomes clear that there is animosity between him and Mukunda, his interactions with the rest of his family are kept to a minimum. Whether or not this was a deliberate choice by Moselle, or because Oscar didn’t want to cooperate as much as his children, the original mindset that led to his decision needed further examination, and the movie suffers accordingly.
That the six brothers – sister Visnu suffers from Turner Syndrome and doesn’t feature as much as a result – have turned out to be as well-balanced as they have is ascribed to their learning about life through movies. Again, the movie doesn’t delve deeply enough into this idea to fully support or prove the matter conclusively, and so we have to take it on trust that Mukunda et al. have grown up to be so confident by a kind of cinematic osmosis. (Though it doesn’t help when Mukunda went outside in his Michael Myers mask; a regular teenager wouldn’t have done that at all, and the authorities response to send him to a mental ward speaks of a deeper problem that again isn’t addressed or mentioned.)
With so much left unanswered, The Wolfpack fortunately retains its fascination by virtue of the footage the children have filmed over the years, footage that shows a family apparently living like any other. Although their apartment could certainly do with a makeover, it’s clear that the money from Susanne’s stipend as a home-schooler meant that the children didn’t go without, and it’s this contradiction – the outside world is bad unless it’s assimilated into the apartment – that adds to the movie’s allure. And their own versions of the movies they’ve seen are fascinating in their own right, a small-scale triumph of ingenuity and opportunity (would they have made these movies if they had access to the outside world?). Their initial trips outside by themselves show them taking small steps – some get their long hair cut, they go to the cinema, they take a trip to Coney Island and paddle in the sea – but as a precursor to the things they now can do, it leaves the viewer wondering what will happen next to them all. Perhaps Moselle can stay in touch with them and in a few years, let us know.
Rating: 6/10 – lacking the focus needed to explore the Angulo children’s singular experience growing up, and the reasons for it, The Wolfpack relies heavily on the children themselves and the similar personalities they’ve developed during their early lives; thought-provoking to be sure, but in the sense that there’s a lot that’s been left unsaid, the movie is still a unique look at an upbringing that most of us couldn’t even begin to imagine.