The No. 1 rule of documentary filmmaking is this: Choose a good subject. In the case of “The Wolfpack,” the Grand Jury Prize winner at the Sundance Film Festival, first-time filmmaker Crystal Moselle had the subject practically delivered to her. Five years ago, she happened to be walking around the East Village in New York City when she spotted six brothers, ages 11 to 18, during what turned out to be the first week they had ever ventured outside the Lower East Side housing project apartment they shared with their parents.
Over a period of months Moselle earned their trust and began filming them as they indulged in their happiest fraternal sport: reenacting scenes from their favorite movies, conspicuously “The Dark Knight” and “Reservoir Dogs.” The second of those, a Quentin Tarantino film, was something of a fashion template for them. Wearing sunglasses, dark jackets, and thin ties with white shirts, they certainly looked the part as they strode the streets en masse.
How exactly was it possible for these six brothers to live lives of such seclusion in New York City? (There is also a first-born sister who is developmentally challenged and virtually unrepresented in the film.) Moselle quickly ascertains the facts, but she parcels them out piecemeal. Partly this is because she doesn’t want to front-load the film with a great deal of back story, but it’s also because, as an off-screen interviewer as well as director, she’s not very inquiring. This is the kind of documentary during which you keep saying to yourself, “Why aren’t you asking him/her that question?”
The answer, I think, is that Moselle became so enthralled by these boys that she didn’t want to alienate their affections and perhaps risk short-circuiting the film.
Only the family’s basic history is easily explained. The mother, Susanne, a footloose Midwesterner, met Oscar Angulo, a Peruvian would-be musician and guide, hiking a trail to Machu Picchu. They moved around in the United States after they married and wound up in New York, where Oscar, ostensibly fearing for his children’s safety, kept them inside almost full time. Susanne home-schooled them, and the family collected welfare.
The children were all given Sanskrit names. The third youngest, Mukunda, is the one who initially broke his father’s edict and ventured outside on his own, wearing an ingeniously constructed homemade Halloween mask – “Halloween” is one of his favorite films – until passersby called the police. He was detained for a week at Bellevue before it was determined he was not mentally unstable. The investigation on the part of the city’s social service agencies into this family’s status seems glaringly deficient, but this is only one of many areas in which Moselle doesn’t feed our curiosity.
Neither does she seem driven to interview any of the Angulos’ neighbors – or anyone else who had occasion to be with them, especially after they began their outside forays. Oscar is briefly interviewed, and his tentative, confused rationales for keeping the children virtual prisoners are never challenged. It’s pretty clear that some sort of abuse was an aspect of their lives. One of the boys talks about how his father would hit Susanne; another boy, once he has tasted some freedom, says of his father, “I can’t stand to look at him.” Susanne, who is bright and forthcoming about the strangeness of their lives, is never prodded to speak about Oscar’s transgressions.
Despite all this, “The Wolfpack” is undeniably fascinating because it satisfies that No. 1 rule about documentaries. Moselle lets the kids carry on for her camera; she films them the first time they go to the beach and the movie theater. The most perplexing thing about this portrait is that, against all odds, the kids mostly seem outlandishly resilient and good-natured. I say “seem” because, again, I don’t entirely trust this portrait. Too much of what Moselle shows us looks tenderized. She is protective of these kids, and of Susanne, but she might have served them better – she would certainly have served her film better – if she had followed their lives with her head more than her heart. Grade: B- (Rated R for language.)