Review: Cinema and hope reign in the unique documentary ‘The Wolfpack’

PARK CITY. Serendipity always plays a major role in Sundance scheduling. Yes, we have an elaborate Excel doc with all of our screenings and interviews and naps and meals programmed, but the best Sundance moments are often when you have a two hour block and duck into the yet-to-premiere Ozarks mystery featuring the girl from “The Bill Engvall,” or when you trust the buzz from the night before and trudge a mile through a blizzard to see an indescribable drama starring a little kid named “Quvenzhané.”

As the Yiddish proverb goes, Der mentsh trakht Sundance un got lakht or “Man plans Sundance, God laughs.” [Anybody who attempts to correct my Yiddish gets blocked.]

So on Sunday night, I went to the far-flung Temple Theater for an evening screening, only to discover a totally different movie was playing and there was no chance I could get to the correct theater in time to see the movie I intended to see. 

Instead, thanks to The Fates (and a friendly publicist with an available ticket), I caught the world premiere of Crystal Moselle's US Documentary Competition entry “The Wolfpack,” which surely will be among my more memorable movies of Sunday 2015. And don't know “memorable” as the highest of praise, since I had to look at my notebook to remember anything about the two movies I saw on Sunday morning and I kinda liked both of them.

Like “Finders Keepers,” another of my early Sundance favorites, “The Wolfpack” is the kind of story that would lend itself to sensationalism and exploitation, but ends up with a core of human emotion that largely (but not entirely) supersedes the shock of its premise.

Think “Son of Rambow” meets “Room” only real and you have the vaguest sense of the incredible story behind “The Wolfpack.”

The six Angulo brothers have lived their lives mostly locked away in an apartment on Manhattan's Lower East Side. Home-schooled by their timid mother, frequently locked in by their alcoholic father, the boys estimate that they don't leave the apartment more than eight or nine times a year, while there was at least one year when they didn't leave at all.

While the Angulos, each sporting nearly waist-length hair, wiry physiques and complexions in need of sun, have no direct personal interaction with the outside world, they have a collection of thousands of movies, from new DVDs to grainy VHS cassettes taped from TV. Obsessed with cinema, they make lists of their favorites, quote a wide assortment of recent hits and classics and, most intriguingly, they do elaborate recreations of the movies shot in their apartment. Using scripts transcribed from countless viewings and the sort of ingenuity I really can't fathom — They have an arsenal of makeshift guns cobbled from cardboard, tin-foil and more, while it turns out that you can make a shockingly good Batman costume from yoga mats and cereal boxes — they recapture staging and fight choreography and performance. I'm not going to tell you that the Angula version of Mr. Pink from “Reservoir Dogs” is better than Steve Buscemi, but they could be put side-by-side, ditto with the Angulo Vincent Vega from “Pulp Fiction.”

Like so much in the Angulos' life, these recreated movies have been recorded for posterity on home video. 

First-time director Moselle first crossed paths with The Wolfpack, as I don't think the Angulos are even called in the documentary, as they were making their first tentative steps toward independence, moving deeper into their collective teens. Her presence within the film is simultaneously unobtrusive — She includes her voice asking a couple questions, while the brothers aren't able to resist acknowledging her in conversation — but unavoidably titanic. She's the presence of the outside world encroaching into an apartment that had been their whole world. Whether she played any interventionist part in pushing the Angulos into their initial excursions or whether their allowing her presence make her more of an effect of independence than a cause is unclear, but you sense the disruption she causes. The things they're saying to her are maybe things they haven't been able to say to anybody else or maybe they're things they wouldn't have been able to say to anybody previously and she's just an available vehicle. 

These are the questions you find yourself pondering during “The Wolfpack,” because it's partially a story of the role cinema can play in helping connect viewers to the world, of helping people get find and hold hope, but it's also a capturing and catalyst for developing hope. Where would the Angulos have been without their library of movies and without their participation in those movies? And given how tied their version of liberation is to the cinema, would they have been as able to push their comfortable limits without the inspiration of a camera watching them and recording them? More than anything, what the Angulos got from cinema was their very representational idea of what freedom looks like, sounds like and feels like. Hearing how people raised on Quentin Tarantino scripts react to and evolve language is compelling. Seeing how people raised on “Halloween” react to feeling like an outsider, to desiring to hide behind masks is heartbreaking.

At a venue like Sundance, it'll be easy to latch onto the Healing Power of the Movies angle and there's no question that it's important, but boiled down to its essence, “The Wolfpack” can be about anything that gives us hope, anything that inspires us to set foot out the door in the morning. 

And it's also about the things that hold us back. It would be convenient to latch onto the Angulo parents as  villains and abusers and I think that will be the way most people read the relationship here, but there's a complexity that Moselle tries to tease out of both of them, suggesting both a couple who would say that they love each other and parents who would say that, at least at some point, they thought they were doing something for the welfare of their kids. A whole different movie would delve into Oscar and Susanne Angulo's psychology and I'm not sure you'd get the answers you want, but Moselle tries to be pragmatic. [There's also a whole movie about daughter Visnu Angulo, who has a mental handicap. The Visnu threat is one where if you start tugging at it, this whole situation could become even more outrageous. She's supported by the love of her large family, but… Yeah. Don't pull the thread.]

Moselle is very attuned to the interests and curiosities of the audience. In the apartment, the camera seems inquisitive and search, as if she can't quite believe what she's seeing and wants to take everything in. There's a messy incredulity to the aesthetic. Out in the world, though, there's a wide-eyed wonderment as she wants to capture reactions whenever possible, both the reactions of the Wolfpack members, but also in several instances, reactions of people seeing these ungainly young men with unique fashion choices out on the prowl. In the apartment, Moselle wants us to sense what that containment would be like. Out in the world, she wants us to feel like these are field trips we'd want to take as well.

There are interesting choices that Moselle makes that were somewhat frustrating on first viewing, but have me eager to rewatch “The Wolfpack.” The documentary is only loosely situated in time and it took me a while to figure out when the filmmaker became involved versus when other things were happening. An arc sets in eventually, but it's late arriving and I think that a rewatch might help with tracking the Angulos and their socialization. Moselle also doesn't make much effort to identify the brothers as individuals rather than as a pack. They're named up-front, but Bhagavan, Govinda, Narayana, Mukunda, Krisna and Jagedesh are never individually identified again, so I can say with some embarrassment that I didn't realize that Govinda and Narayana were twins, much less that I should maybe be able to distinguish between their personalities. Looking at the press notes after the movie, there were points of differentiation that I missed entirely, but might see on a rewatch. 

And considering it was never a movie I had necessarily expected to see here, it's notable that “The Wolfpack” is the first Sundance 2015 movie that I'm looking forward to seeing again. And I'd also like to revisit this family whenever Moselle is inspired to do so.

“The Wolfpack” is a special movie

Other Sundance 2015 Reviews:
“Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief”
“Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck”
“Slow West”
“The Amina Profile”
“The Hunting Ground”
“The End of the Tour”
“A Walk in the Woods”
“Finders Keepers”
“How To Change The World”
“What Happened, Miss Simone?”