The Wolfpack, the 2015 Sundance documentary winner, is about the six Angulo brothers who have been locked away in an apartment for their whole lives and still love each other’s company. They make home movies together with fancy handmade props. They reenact classic film dialogue and draw the poster art. They also play music with showmanship and cook meals together. With their long black ponytails and wiry bodies, they look like distinct characters made for the cinema. Though they range in age across their adolescent and teenage years, it is difficult to tell some of the older siblings apart.
Aside from the brothers, who are obviously the stars here, the story has all the ingredients for tightly wound drama: an abusive paranoid father of ambiguous descent, a sweet mother trapped by her love, and a younger sister who doesn’t fit in and is often overlooked. Instead of mourning the suffocating situation they find themselves in, the brothers embrace it – their imaginations more immense than the Manhattan that surrounds them.
First-time director, Crystal Moselle, has found an incredible story. This is the type of subject that transcends what we know about the modern North American family, the contrast between the reclusive Angulos and the omnipresent city. What was supposed to be a pit stop en route to a greater destiny is now a resting place for welfare checks and detachment. They turn inward for exploration. Over-protectiveness clouds their view of an already hazy skyline.
This reversion from the outside world was not the brothers’ doing. Their father, Oscar, has withheld them from public life. Although Oscar is never on camera long enough for the audience to see a complete view of his personality, his presence as an authority figure looms over the whole picture. His wife looks shell-shocked. She follows her kids around the house timidly. It is clear that she is the source of love and compassion in the household, home-schooling them to the best of her ability, but has never been able to pose a formidable enough stance to challenge her husband and soften his grip.
At this point in the story, Oscar is not who he used to be. Rather than patrolling the house and keeping his family in line, he’s shut himself off in his own room where he drinks alcohol and watches TV. He rebels against society by not working, but he resembles more of a broken man than one of principle. The boys have learned how to stay out of his way. At night they huddle around their mother in the living room for protection, resting on one another like cubs in a cave. In one particularly haunting segment of edited-in home video, the Angulo patriarch is blessing his kin in a single-file line. He meets them all one-by-one by kissing their faces and muttering at them in a voice of purpose. You want them all to run away.
As a film, The Wolfpack is not as interesting as the subject matter itself. Structurally, it’s caught between a few styles. At times Moselle takes a fly-on-the-wall approach where she lets the camera roll and the boys do the rest. On other occasions she sits them down for interviews to reflect on their lives. The cuts are quick. Unlike the great observational documentaries, there isn’t enough time devoted to the unfolding of events to capture the nuances of the lives portrayed.
You can’t help but wish for longer takes and more off-the-cuff interaction between the family members. Sometimes the viewer is left trying to figure out how exactly the Angulos’ situation came to be. While, at other times, you’re looking to get a sense of who’s who in the family and how each personality fits together. The asides are distracting. It appears that the director is using all of her subjects individually to create a balanced perspective of their shared experience. The interviews seek to provide unique commentary from multiple angles. However, the sound-bytes are too vague. Not enough is revealed specifically in their answers to show how they all feel. In this situation, no amount of interview footage can capture the family dynamic. While you may get an interpretation of an event from one of the Angulos, you don’t get a chance to see the depth of a reaction. There are times where the omniscient perspective surfaces, but never enough to deliver a prolonged emotional response. That spectrum of feeling so crucial to building a complete character study is oddly lacking here.
Moselle, while skilled enough to identify and take up with the Angulos, seems more concerned with delivering a fact-based narrative in objective fashion. And while sympathetic to her subjects, this approach comes across as a wasted opportunity. Instead of creating an immersive and vibrant experience, she presents a film in black and white. There are too many moments of cursory recollection. Past events are mentioned in passing but never explained in detail and the themes jump around in manic order. It’s exhausting trying to piece these fragments together.
To offset the retrospection, there are a couple of poetically filmed scenes. In one, the brothers are seen running back-and-forth through their apartment hallway laughing and tagging each other. Instrumental music is plopped into the soundtrack and all the action seems slowed down to Mallickian effect. This is interruptive and out of place with what’s been presented up until that moment. Without being granted enough of a chance for emotional observation in past scenes, such a lyrical foray goes without meaning. The fabric of the film buckles when trying to straddle the artistic and the realistic, the investigative and the contemplative.
In a similarly filmed scene when the boys set off to the beach, Moselle is trying to portray wonder and discovery. They walk out into the sunlight in admiration of the natural. They smile and contemplate the beauty of the trees and water. This moment of adventure is filmed like it’s supposed to be a breakthrough in the story, but the implications are lost on the viewer. We don’t know or see enough of the struggle it takes for the boys to venture outside in the first place. Rather than this event manifesting as a momentous victory, it comes across as a recreation of something that’s happened before.
The Wolfpack Screens as part of the 2015 edition of the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Film Festival on April 24th and April 26th. To purchase tickets, visit the website here.