When you walk outside in the morning to head to work, or class, or an errand, chances are you don't think twice about it, other than to grumble that it's too early or you wish you didn't have to do this today. But how would the simple act of stepping out your door be transformed into something exotic and barely-hoped-for if you never got to experience it? And how on earth, in America in 2015, could that ever be a reality? These are the questions upon which first-time director Crystal Moselle's debut, The Wolfpack, is built.
The documentary revolves around the strange and sheltered life of the boys of the Angulo family, who, along with their younger sister and mother, were essentially held prisoner in their Lower East Side apartment by their domineering father, Oscar. Homeschooled and rarely venturing out, the six brothers only intermittently made contact with the reality of the outside world. But with thousands of DVDs and movies at their disposal, they built their own version of reality through elaborate recreations of the movies they watched, right down to the accents and props.
At face value, The Wolfpack is profoundly engaging as it tells the story of the boys slowly starting to find their way in the world. It is utterly fascinating to watch the brothers be so aware of how socially stunted they are, and their resentment toward their father. They speak of it with complete candor, in the somehow-off rhythms of ones for whom carrying on normal conversations with other human beings outside their circle isn't natural. And yet, at the same time, there are hints they carry around their isolated upbringing and warped worldview like a badge of honor. Both fully aware that their reality is not normal or healthy, and yet showing flashes of sharing their father's paranoid philosophy even while rejecting it.
And it's here that the film fails its audience, as it eventually raises far more questions than it answers. While Moselle's film is on its surface a tale of triumph and hope, the tone of the film clashes with its message, as you get the distinct feeling there is a much, much darker story that's not being told. The mother, when she is on camera, speaks of a life of abuse, both physical and mental. Yet the authorities never knew and did nothing, nor did any of their neighbors seem to realize that an entire family of 9 people was living next door and things weren't right.
There are many more unanswered questions, and ones that very well may be important to the narrative. The sole daughter of the Angulo clan is mute, and other than one dismissive reference to her that implies she is possibly autistic, that's it. She is merely a peripheral character on the fringes; for the purposes of the documentary, she doesn't exist. The mother's presence also raises questions. It's almost impossible to conceive of how a girl who grew up presumably normally in the Midwest would let herself be controlled and then trapped by Oscar, and - far worse - let her sons and daughter suffer the same fate. One scene in particular in which she reconnects with her own mother, with whom she's not spoken for years because of Oscar, is poignant but troubling. If she was allowed to pick up a phone and call her family, then how were things ever so bad that she couldn't simply leave Oscar and go home, bringing her children? Though she does what she can and is hugely sympathetic, the fact remains that she has utterly failed her children. It's a reality that's incongruous with the "angel of the home" image Moselle tries to create.
And the first on-camera appearance of Oscar, who, for the first part of the documentary, is presented as a looming, larger than life figure, it is confusing. He appears as nothing more than a vaguely rambling, well-meaning but detached man - nothing that suggests he has the power, control, or level of manipulation required to keep an entire family dutifully under lock and key for decades. There, too, is a missed opportunity: If Oscar had been so hellbent on keeping his children shuttered away, so paranoid about them interacting with the outside world, so self-righteous in his views, then why did he allow the boys to start going off on their own without so much as a fight? And how on earth did he ever agree to letting a filmmaker come in and document the family, presumably taking the boys farther and farther away from home? If there was resistance, we are not privy to it as the audience. In her own words, the mother simply told him, "It's time," and he acquiesced. Again, the tone and the message simply don't match up.
The boys themselves are charming and fascinating. You empathize with them, and really, it's this wholly likable factor that makes the story so compelling. The Angulo brothers are smart and plucky and loving, and as they try to break the shackles that bind them, you root for them, hard, and as they achieve it, you're left feeling genuinely hopeful.
But in the end, you just can't shake the sense that Moselle's agenda obscured a deeper, truer story that might have been told. It's a poignant, thought-provoking film, but one that would have been better served with a few more chapters.