If nothing else, Crystal Moselle’s The Wolfpack proves that kids exposed to violent Tarantino films can still become well-adjusted adults. Trapped inside their Lower East Side apartment with little else to do, the Angulo Brothers of Moselle’s documentary act out Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and various other cult classics not only with precision and attention to detail, but gleeful abandon.
The Wolfpack, this year’s Grand Jury Prize winner for Best Documentary at Sundance, reveals the power of the movies to condition people to the world around them. For all their lives, the six Angulo brothers have been forced to live permanently indoors by their strange and overbearing father. Some years they’ve been let out up to nine times, some years not at all. The boys have never heard of the word “Google,” and one brother was arrested when he walked down the sidewalk with a Jason Voorhees mask on. But with movies as their only refuge, they’ve grown into intelligent young men still capable of functioning in the real world.
But if the movies have conditioned us to anything, it’s to ask questions and expect a little more. Moselle’s documentary is sketchy about some of the specifics of the Angulos’ captivity, as well as how she as an outsider managed to gain unprecedented access to their home over a five-year span. Unlike the films from which the Angulos have taken their inspiration, Moselle’s approach seems to build toward something greater and more sinister that’s never attained.
The Wolfpack immediately announces the Angulos’ pitiful conditions, and over the top of their testimony Moselle layers some hollow strings and eerie sounds that instantly bring down the mood. Yet we’re introduced to the Angulos through happy home movies and their charming re-imaginings of Hollywood classics. Upon recreating Batman’s costume with yoga mats and spray-painted cereal boxes, they demonstrate all the charisma of the Beales of Grey Gardens, were Little Edie a teenage boy raised on ‘90s pop culture.
All six boys were given Sanskrit names and have long, chest-length black hair over pale, freckly faces, and yet in one of The Wolfpack’s more frustrating turns, they’re never individually identified, making it nearly impossible to distinguish them. Even more oddly, Moselle spends the most time with the boys, but builds a villainous and near-incriminating profile of the Angulos’ father, a rambling, quiet, possibly alcoholic Hare Krishna from South America. He’s withheld from the film for nearly an hour, but when it finally arrives, his explanation for keeping them indoors hardly justifies the build-up; you could even say it was reasonable.
It’s an anti-climax, and hardly the film’s only one. A key meeting with Mrs. Angulo and her long-estranged mother goes unexplored. The youngest Angulo daughter is conspicuously absent throughout. And when the oldest boy is suddenly allowed to begin finding and starting his own life, it is its own disappointing surprise. Moselle doesn’t push the issues of the boys’ health, education, or well-being, nor does she insert her own observations, and this leaves her documentary unformed and without some important pathos. Perhaps like the boys’ home remakes, The Wolfpack ends up as an unpolished shell of something greater.