Crystal Moselle’s documentary The Wolfpack is a Manhattan fable about fear. Two decades ago, a Hare Krishna, conspiracy theorist, and self-described god named Oscar Angulo moved from Peru to a public housing tenement on the Lower East Side with his American bride, Susanne, whom he’d met and wooed on the Inca Trail. New York was meant to be a pit stop. The goal was Scandinavia, where social services would help the young couple support their seven children, each named after a Sanskrit hero. But they never had the money — Oscar didn’t believe in work. Their first month in the city, two people were murdered downstairs. To protect his family, Oscar locked the door and kept the key. Some years, he allowed his kids outside only nine times. One year, he never let them leave the apartment at all.
The Wolfpack introduces us to the pale, homeschooled children — six boys and one girl — as teenagers. Slender as straws, they seem to have grown to fit their spartan confines, where they pile onto a mattress on the floor to watch DVDs. (They’ve never been to a theater.) Movies are their only connection to the outside. Their obsession with brawny Nineties flicks like Pulp Fiction and JFK means they don’t know much about the present — Google is a mystery. It also means they believe real life is as violent as their dad imagines. (And that everyone outside wears cool suits.)
The boys have waist-length black hair and their father’s brutal cheekbones and broad mouth. Moselle is the first person they’ve ever invited for dinner, and her footage of their apartment, especially on hot afternoons when they’re lying around shirtless, suggests an anthropologist discovering a contemporary cargo cult. Instead of building dummy bamboo planes to tempt pilots to drop off cans of peaches, the Angulo kids wallpaper their room in crayoned movie posters, transcribe scripts in pen, and film their own shot-for-shot remakes of their favorite flicks.
Their home videos, spliced into the doc, let them feel they’ve stepped through their screens to join the world. Says one kid, “It makes me feel like I’m living, sort of.” Luckily for them, most movies are so guy-centric that every brother gets a good part. They’ve got the hours to hone their cardboard prop guns, adding frills like ejectable bullet cartridges and chambers, until they look so perfect that a real-life SWAT team actually raids the apartment on a mistaken weapons bust. For that moment, their life has as much action as the movies — but it reinforces their fear of outsiders. When they move from Reservoir Dogs to The Dark Knight, the brother who plays Batman shimmies into a convincing suit made of cereal boxes and yoga mats, and stands at the window overlooking a city he can’t even explore, let alone save.
Director Moselle treats the six boys like a unit. We’re never sure of their names and ages, and even their faces blur. This might feel slipshod — after all, we, too, are used to movies with heroes — yet it’s thematically smart. Under Oscar’s control, the sons aren’t individuals. No one’s ever asked one if he’d rather go out for a cheeseburger or a steak, if he’d prefer to swim or ski, to take French or Spanish, what he’d like to study in college. Inside the apartment, he can’t even dream of having his own dream. Before each can define his own identity, his own future, he has to take that first step toward independence. He has to leave the house and decide for himself where to go.
Finally, one does. While Oscar is out for groceries, the fifteen-year-old slips out wearing a handmade Michael Myers mask so his dad won’t recognize him. Moselle re-enacts his big moment with a montage of his sensory overload: the dogs, the crush of people, the trash. Before he gets far, the boy in the costume is picked up by the cops and strong-armed to a mental hospital.
This is good. He’s made contact, albeit with a ward of suicidal teenagers. Emboldened, his brothers join his next adventure, all in matching suits and shiny shoes like time travelers failing to blend in. Moselle discovered the Angulos like this, six skinny, long-haired boys dressed like Vincent Vega, and chased them down a sidewalk to figure out their story. Chronologically, the film’s first half has been a rewind so we can share their escape, setting off a faint alarm that we’ve been tricked. Audiences should be suspicious of docs that tamper too much with time, but it’s also the only way the film could have been made. They had to be out in order to invite Moselle in.
The Wolfpack is more like a diorama of the Angulos’ unusual childhood than an explanatory documentary. Oscar refuses cathartic apologies, and the boys are only beginning to process their new lives, and how much they’ve lost. Says one, “There are some things you just don’t put behind you.”
When the film ends, we’re left with the same hunger the boys felt for years. We want more, especially about their battered mom, Susanne, who perhaps endured even more abuse than the kids. She, too, starts to rebel. When Susanne finally leaves the house herself, she doesn’t attract attention like her fleet of overdressed sons. No one would ever stop this ordinary-looking middle-aged woman and demand her story. And that’s The Wolfpack‘s lesson for us: Sure, we can go outside. But are we connecting with the people there?
Directed by Crystal Moselle
Opens June 12
Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center and Landmark Sunshine