What is there to make of Crystal Moselle’s The Wolfpack (2015), a strange, eccentric documentary about an even stranger, more eccentric family of homeschooled children in New York City who spent the majority of their lives trapped in their father’s apartment filming no-budget re-enactments of famous movies? What is there to say about the Angulo brothers (and sister), seven siblings who based all of their perceptions of the outside world on Hollywood cinema? Some would call it tragic. Some would call it hilarious. But Moselle seems compelled to answer that question for us: it’s strange and eccentric.
There probably hasn’t been a more compellingly unusual (or unusually compelling) family in a documentary since the Beales in Albert and David Maysles’ Grey Gardens (1975). Under the hand of their abusive, domineering father—a man obsessed with the Hare Krishna religion who literally thought of himself as a god—the Angulos were raised essentially as a home-grown Hollywood cult. “If I didn’t have movies, life would be pretty boring. And there wouldn’t be any point to go on, you see? So movies opened up another world,” one of the brothers explains. The Angulos painstakingly recreated many Hollywood films, complete with original costumes and props—their Reservoir Dogs cardboard gun collection was so realistic that neighbors called the S.W.A.T. team on them. Even when they eventually go outside into the world, the cinema is the only reliable lens through which they can comprehend what they see. “This is like 3D, man,” one of them marvels as they walk through a sparse park, “it’s like Fangorn Forest from Lord of the Rings!”
I suspect most audiences will be intrigued by the Angulos’ various movie projects. And it must be admitted that there is a certain endearing charm to watching scenes from Batman Begins (2005) being earnestly acted out in a crammed apartment by a teenager wearing a cardboard utility belt and yoga-mat body armor. It calls to mind the early films of George and Mike Kuchar, those Bronx-based mavericks of camp who helmed vast cinematic epics…on the roof of their Bronx apartment building with fake props. But here’s the crucial difference: for the Kuchars, filmmaking was a hobby; for the Angulos, filmmaking was a survival mechanism. Filmmaking allowed them to escape their horrific home-life. And it was these behind-the-scenes sequences in their home that most fascinated me: the constant pressure of their father’s presence even when he hid off-screen like a minotaur; their mother’s first tentative steps to re-establish contact with her outside family for the first time in fifty years; the desperation, sadness, and longing in the children’s tired, expectant faces as they look out their apartment windows.
Unfortunately, Moselle is so wrapped up with proving just how bizarre the Angulos’ circumstances are that she almost misses the fact that their story is essentially one of triumph and survival. Here are seven children who escaped a terrible situation and have begun to live in the outside world. But the B-roll is so gloomy and dark, the soundtrack so mournful and jarring, that one can’t help but leave the film feeling melancholy. A concluding sequence where the children and their mother visit an apple orchard and reflect on their future feels perfunctory and hollow. But even the tonal missteps can’t detract from an otherwise engrossing documentary—quite possibly the most curious I have seen all year.