Film Review: 'The Wolfpack'

★★★★☆
This Sundance award-winning documentary recalls English poet Philip Larkin's This Be the Verse: "They fuck you up, your mum and dad..." Then again, Larkin probably didn't have parents as paranoid as Oscar Angulo who, with ex-hippie Susanne, raised their six sons and one daughter in near-isolated lockdown. Like Grey Gardens, The Wolfpack (2015) blurs the traditional border between documentary filmmaker and subject, as director Crystelle Moselle captures the quotidian details of family dysfunction with intimacy, but also discretion. Sporting long hair and Sanskrit names, the Angulo brothers, aged 16-23, were forbidden by their father to leave their cramped public housing flat in Manhattan's Lower East Side.

When interviewed, Oscar refers to the outside world as "a piece of jail" while ironically, his sons describe their childhood as "a prison", their father "the warden". Yet Oscar is also responsible for providing his sons with 5,000 movies on VHS and DVD, and unwittingly, the keys to their creative freedom. What follows is a compelling case of reality and fantasy blending along Hollywood plot lines. Within the claustrophobic tensions of the family flat, the brothers recreate another world as a vent for self-expression: a symbolic rebellion, if not escape. After memorising scripts transcribed via typewriter, they passionately recreate sequences from Pulp Fiction to No Country For Old Men, on and off-camera.

Remarkably resourceful when it comes to home-made costumes and elaborate props, the accuracy of the brothers' Dark Knight suit - made out of repurposed cereal boxes and yoga mats - impresses. So when 20-year-old Mukunda manages to sneaks out of the flat, and goes for a walk in a Michael Meyers mask, the audience wonders if he's really capable of distinguishing the difference between real life and the movies. If Mukunda couldn't before, a court-mandated stay in a mental hospital ensures it. With a wide grin, he wryly comments: "It's not like Cuckoo's Nest." Moselle's meandering style mirrors the other Angulo brothers' sense of eagerness and newness as they venture into the city, sparked by Mukunda's defiant move. Decked out in sharp black suits and retro sunglasses a la Reservoir Dogs, they ride the subway and attend a cinema screening (of The Fighter) for the first time, constantly contextualising reality through film references and quotes, using cinema as a cipher. Coney Island reminds them of Lawrence of Arabia; public park trees are like Fangorn Forest in The Lord of the Rings. As The Wolfpack progresses, Moselle doesn't probe as deeply as the viewer might like, raising more questions than answers. Its left unexplained what made Oscar finally relinquish control over his family, and there are "unforgivable" acts of abuse that are briefly mentioned and quickly forgotten. Perhaps the greatest shock is how decent the boys turn out to be. They're sincere, articulate, yet self-aware: they have been shaped, not ruined, by their experience.

Christine Jun | @ChristineCocoJ

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