“The Wolfpack” is a horror film with a supposedly happy ending.
But if you see this documentary, please consider just how “happy” that happy ending is. Pay close attention to the fate of the youngest child of the Angulo family which, believe me, is far more than documentary filmmaker Crystal Moselle is willing to do.
That’s my problem with “The Wolfpack.” It’s an aesthetic object – a freak show, really, whose filmmaker doesn’t seem much more interested in her genuinely interesting subject than the exploitationist impresario who launches King Kong on an unsuspecting Manhattan.
The movie-besotted Angulo family is composed of seven children – six almost identical-looking boys, all with hair growing down to their rumps, and one young girl. The kids are seldom allowed out of the house. They watch movies all the time. One of the brothers painstakingly transcribes complete scripts. Then they use those to re-enact the films and play off them.
It is, by accident, a period this summer where we’ll see two films about movie-besotted teens. “The Wolfpack” is a documentary about a real family. “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” is a very lovable adaptation of a Young Adult novel scheduled to open here soon.
Make no mistake, “The Wolfpack” has nothing really to do with movies or movie love. It’s a Gothic documentary about a home-schooled family in which the children are horrifyingly cut off from the world and left to manufacture ideas of social behavior from films, TV and each other.
They are, says one brother, a tribe. Call them “The Wolfpack” because these are kids who, metaphorically, have been “raised by wolves.”
If only they’d actually been that lucky. (Then they would know how to deal with the world, however savagely. Here, in this family, “Our Dad is the only one with the keys to the front door.”)
Their father is Peruvian immigrant and megalomaniac Oscar Angulo. Says one son: “My father doesn’t like the idea of working. He calls it ‘being a slave to society.’ ”
“My Dad always thought he was better than anybody. He said he was God, he said he was enlightened, he said he was the one who knew everything.”
If there’s any truth to that he is, of course, a monster. He sometimes slaps Mom, who was born here.
Much is made of the 5,000 movies on DVD in the family’s possession and of their re-enactments of “Reservoir Dogs” (the Stealer’s Wheel torture scene will chill your blood) and “Pulp Fiction.” But movies are, in Alfred Hitchcock’s concept, the “MacGuffin” in this freak show. And that fact is both a grotesque insult to movies and an aesthetic abuse of a very real grotesque family.
Carefully note in detail how filmmaker Crystal Moselle is telling this story. Movie play comes first. Then the first tentative twitches of the eldest son toward wanting to step out of the house on his own for the first time.
Then come the details about Daddy Dearest (Mommy’s a piece of work too; the highly technical term “whack job” is appropriate).
You have to keep watching this movie to get to the point two-thirds of the way through when it tells you where the family’s scant money and groceries come from. Mom is paid money by the state to educate the children at home. “She’s approved to be a teacher,” they say.
That’s it. Their total income. Welfare isn’t mentioned. When you realize how long it takes the movie to get around to answer that question, you understand how Moselle’s storytelling method is the documentary film equivalent of a sideshow.
And why are we watching? For the bourgeois satisfaction of being able to consign them all to freakdom and revel in our own superiority to their condition.
If that’s it, aren’t movies wonderful? How nice of this movie to show us a family that knows so little about the world.
Eventually one son gets out from under Daddy’s hell. An encounter with cops brings society to them. Says that kid eventually, “we’re no longer father and son anymore.”
And then the filmmaker ends it all by showing them all at a beach and then at a pumpkin farm.
One kid says “this is like 3-D, man.”
“When I look at him everything I see in him feels wrong to me,” says one son with all the logic of the universe on his side.
And then the horror tale is supposedly over, with the final scene supposedly our reward for watching these people and congratulating ourselves for both our “superiority” and our “empathy.”
Except that, as I said, if you watch on the corner of the screen the family’s youngest more closely than the filmmaker wants you to, you might think there’s still plenty of horror to go around.
Save some disgust for Moselle too, who has brought us this case history that ends – oh, you know – just like a movie.
How nice for us.
Starring: Oscar Angulo and his children Mukunda, Bhagavan, Jagadisa, Govinda, Narayana and Krsna
Director: Crystal Moselle
Running time: 80 minutes
Rating: R for language and theme.
The Lowdown: Documentary in which a movie-besotted family of seven on New York’s Lower East Side is seldom allowed out of the house.