Talking Movies: Crystal Moselle’s documentary ‘The Wolfpack’ captures the isolated lives of six brothers

The Wolfpack

FilmScene — Opening Friday, June 26, times vary

Whether we’re cinephiles or not, a lot of us probably spent an inordinate amount of time in our childhood pretending to be characters from our favorite films and TV shows. The social anxiety about exactly what children are choosing to imitate, and the effects their play has on their psychological health, has been running high for years. In a time when young men are carrying out public executions with firearms, many wonder whether violence in popular culture, and the ethic of the loner anti-hero, have helped create a generations of boys who are alienated from society, resentful of others and prone to violence.

In the documentary The Wolfpack, winner of the 2015 docu grand jury prize at Sundance Film Festival, filmmaker Crystal Moselle introduces viewers a group of teenage boys whose obsession with violent films may well be the healthiest part of their lives.

The six Angulo brothers and their sister were raised as hermits — their parents, distrustful of mainstream society, strictly controlled their access to the outside world as they grew up. Their father, in particular, enforced the family’s recluse lifestyle, preventing the boys and their mother from leaving the Angulo’s Lower East Side Manhattan apartment except for emergencies.

Despite this treatment — undeniably a form of domestic abuse — the boys are active, charismatic and intelligent, if a bit eccentric.

The Angulo brothers have spent most of their lives with cinema as their only means of engaging with a world outside of the apartment, tirelessly transcribing scripts from their DVD’s and VHS’s, fashioning impressive costumes out of cardboard and yoga mats, and re-enacting scenes from favorites like Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994). Their attention to detail is often impressive: They have not only the costumes, but the choreography of the Bane-Batman fight in The Dark Knight Rises (2012) down pat.

The brothers claim that, despite their isolation and their obsession with films, they understand the distinction between reality and story. Such an assertion would seem to be too simple, however: When 15 year-old Bhagavan (although Peruvian and American in heritage, the Angulo siblings all have Sanskrit names) decides to disobey his father and leave the house one day, he dons the family’s homemade Michael Myers mask because he “doesn’t want to be recognized.” Filmic worlds interpenetrate their lives in ways that exceed a “normal” relationship to cinema.

While it clearly condemns the control he exercised over the family’s access to society, the film withholds from pursuing direct and totalizing judgment of Oscar, the boys’ father. Oscar, for example, refuses to work on philosophical grounds, not wanting to participate in what he sees as an irredeemable social system. Instead of moralizing about such decisions, The Wolfpack attempts primarily to understand why he made them, and let the audience do most of the judging themselves. This is admirable, as it allows us to see this man as in many ways reprehensible, but also as a complex human being.

Though the film spends much of its second half addressing not the boys’ cinephilia but the family’s gradual emergence from its isolation, it still leaves one with many questions and concerns about the family.

Perhaps the most pressing remaining question is about the Angulo daughter, Visnu. No one in the family (from what is presented here) talks about her very much, and the film more or less neglects her for its entire run length. Visnu seems to have special needs, or perhaps is simply the most isolated member of the family, excluded from the boys’ cinema club. We don’t know because the film — perhaps by the family’s request, though there’s no indication that the filmmakers had anything but unfettered access — never tells us much about the daughter at all.

However, The Wolfpack, at least at the outset, raises fascinating questions about movies as representation and as creative outlet, and the line between fact and alluring fictions. On the one hand, movies are not accurate representations of, or adequate preparation for, the outside world. As the boys spend more time outside, their mother suspects they’re beginning to learn that “the movies are real but not real” — a succinct way of describing the chosen reality of the boys’ most beloved movies.

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One can’t help but feel nervous for the Angulo brothers, though as they enter a New York City they basically only know from gangster films. In their meticulous re-creations of influential film scenes, the boys show that mass culture isn’t simply received, and that originality has its roots in imitation. Perhaps most vitally, they show that even the most violent mainstream movies can actually make a positive difference in the lives of vulnerable youth — that escapism, for some, is a necessity.

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