Around June of this year it seemed like several of the film podcasts I listen to and review sites that I frequent were talking about this documentary, and in glowing terms too. Again and again I hoped to have the time to go and see it during its brief theatrical run in Ireland, and again and again I was foiled. But, finally, streaming options have provided. The Wolfpack promised much: a film about isolated families, cult-like behaviour from patriarchs and filmmaking. But was Crystal Moselle’s documentary all that it was hyped up to be? Or was the praise too much, for an otherwise unexceptional effort?
In 1995, Oscar and Susanne Angula began to raise a family in the housing projects of Lower East Side Manhattan. Six sons and a daughter are born to the couple over the next 14 years: fearful of outside influences and desiring to create a “tribe” of his own, Oscar kept his wife and children mostly confined in their small apartment for the whole period. Isolated, the Angula siblings interact with the outside world mostly through a shared love of film, recreating their favourite moments, before eventually taking firmer steps outside their front door.
From the opening moments, when you see the Angula brothers recreating scenes from Quintin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs inside the rather dingy confines of their small apartment, The Wolfpack does begin a process of showing you the depths of ingenuity one can find in the most unlikely places, and how the power of film can penetrate many barriers. It does this with this cast of imminently likeable, and even charming, young men, who are awkward on camera but not terrified, and seem eager to have their story told. You might expect conflict and clashes in the claustrophobic setting between numerous teenaged boys, but instead there is a genuine warmth and affection between them all, having lived so close to each for so long. Indeed, it is striking how normal the Angulo’s appear, only faltering when put into situations outside the apartment. The retreat into the fantasy provided by the movies is not surprising in the least, but what it all means is a bit trickier to understand.
The Wolfpack can’t get past the fact that it doesn’t really have all that much to say, and no effectively made point by the conclusion. I suppose you could call it a failure of narrative: with the documentarian silently behind the camera for the most part, and with no inclusion of how she became aware of the Angula’s and how she was able to gain access to their lives, The Wolfpack is missing something very important, and pertinent details of how Moselle is affecting the tale by her very presence go unanswered. It seems at first to be an exploratory documentary, trying to document this isolated family, but becomes more of a recordation by the end, and a rather dry, dull one at that.
The Wolfpack quickly sets its scene, immediately mixing its modern interviews – mostly featuring the eldest sibling, Mokunda – with the family archive of tapes, showing various moments from their lives, be they Halloween celebrations or film re-enactments. There is something altogether eerie about it all: the kids seem happy with their lot, but also seem to be totally trapped within this horrible place. The Wolfpack presents a nightmare, and the people inside it don’t actually want to get out, so indentured have they become to it. They don’t want to go to school, having spent their lives being educated by their mother. They don’t want to go outside, having spent their lives being warned against it by their father.
Oscar Angula needed to be in this film more, though perhaps he wouldn’t give the director the chance. For the first half he is altogether absent: when he does appear, instead of the justifications the audience might be expecting, we get what amounts to rambling nonsense, the manifesto of a man whose rebellion against the system – that amounted to drunkenly avoiding work and maintaining his role as a dominant patriarch over this tiny slice of the world – has long since lost any kind of sense. The brothers’ obsession with films is fuelled by a great deal of access to them, and this inherent contradiction in Oscar’s reasoning is never explored.
The Wolfpack depicts a crucial point in the family’s history, as the boys start to finally realise that their alcoholic father, inferred to have been abusive, no longer has the kind of hold over them that he once did. So come the steps into the outside world: Mokunda gleefully relates his first crazy experience, wandering around Manhattan in a homemade mask, and ending up in a hospital when taken in by local cops. It’s the start of a rebellion that Oscar can’t contain, and by the time we have come to the moment The Wolfpack is depicting, he seems pathetically resigned to his “tribe” falling apart, his moments on camera more about blaming outside forces than himself. He’s a truly awful figure, and I didn’t like the rather easy ride Moselle gave him.
A more interesting figure is Suzanne. The shades of mental illness are all around The Wolfpack, and she seems to be in thrall to the man she married, to an incredibly unhealthy extent. She doesn’t leave, she’s expected to be the children teacher, and she’s cut off her own parents from her life: all the trappings of a cult in many respects. Like her children, Suzanne also starts to break a bit free as The Wolfpack goes on, but the indoctrination is stronger in her than it is in her offspring. She’s far from guiltless when it comes to their fate, and the overall state of her marriage seems to be based more on fear in the present day than anything, a situation left frustratingly unclear by the films conclusion.
Once you get used to the cramped surroundings, the longing looks out the window and the depictions of a family that seems desperate to present their situation as normal, you can begin to appreciate some of the meat and bones. The Angula’s recreate entire films in vivid ways: cereal boxes and other cardboard create props and costumes, some so realistic that it brings a police raid to their little world, a moment that is recalled with the air of a people who feel unfairly persecuted. A Batman costume is a particular treat, though its bit jarring how the films jumps to that, and the rather comical sight of Mokunda in it, after discussing Oscar’s abusive tendencies, and Mokunda’s distancing from him. Moselle seems to want to contrast this surreal scenario with seriousness, and I’m not sure it totally works. Batman is a cipher for the Angula’s, a character that seems to be the kind of person they want to be. Putting on is costume is a comfort, a piece of movie magic that lets them escape from humdrum reality. But it gets taken to an extreme at moments that is quite unsettling: a recreation of a scene from Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas in particular stands out in that regard.
The idea of the Angula’s acting like a persecuted minority has some weight. Their father wanted a tribe, and so similar are the Angula, in faces, hair, clothes and general attitude – even the spreading resentment manifests itself similarly in each young man – that you almost start to buy the idea of them being a cultural sub-set, one that struggles to reconcile their existence and lives with how the outside society they shun might view them. The police raid is a painful memory for some to recall, but also a galvanising one, as if it was the moment some of the boys realised their isolation had gone too far. But it also might make the audience question why Moselle has decided to focus exclusively on the Angulo’s: no police, no neighbours and no social workers get any kind of input here. It’s a disappointingly narrow lens to use.
As grim as I have made The Wolfpack out to be, there are happier moments, and the film generally is unexpectedly upbeat. It depicts the Angula siblings going outside after all, though such things are tinged with problems: a trip to the cinema is an obvious delight, but there’s something terribly affecting in how some of the boys are convinced they are being followed on the way home. A trip to Coney Island shows the boys can partake in normal activities the same as anyone else, but Mokunda remains frozen by the idea of actually entering the water himself. Baby steps I suppose, but I didn’t find much catharsis in these moments myself: maybe it was due to the way Moselle somewhat belabours the point, hitting the magic number of 90 minutes by drawing out things to an unnecessary level. That, and there is an obvious uncomfortableness in at times: some of the sons echo their father’s paranoia about the outside world, and even those that seem the most unhappy with his tyranny don’t seem all that far removed from it. The Wolfpack is more interesting in its opening half when looking at the Angulo’s as a group; later, it isn’t so enthralling.
The Wolfpack ends on a very bright note, with Mokunda looking into making his own films for a change, and even starting to interact with members of the opposite sex positively, something the film largely shies away from examining: I guess there was only so much Moselle would have been allowed to pry into, but you have to imagine there is some warped sexual development in there somewhere.
I didn’t see all of the greatness that others have claimed to see, instead witnessing an exploration of a very unique circumstance that doesn’t really hit the right notes as well as it could have. There is too much left unlooked at here: the darker aspects of having nine people trapped in such a contained space, the developmentally challenged sister, and what the future holds now that such circumstances can no longer be kept hidden.
That is not to say that The Wolfpack is a bad film, but it does have all the hallmarks of a documentarian who isn’t well-versed in the craft just yet: a meandering narrative, an uncertain timeline in the way that archival footage is cut in, a lack of harder questioning, unsure of what central point it wants to make, and failing to realise the potential of its premise. Issues of consent also cloud an appreciation of The Wolfpack, as the mental health of some its participants, never mind their young ages, raises some questions that might have disturbing answers. Some of the individuals in The Wolfpack need serious help, and others need authoritative intervention: maybe what they don’t need to a documentary that errs too much on the side of trite sentiment.
(All images are copyright of Magnolia Pictures).