This week sees the release of two divisive Sundance Grand Jury Prize winners. The first is Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” the precious, quirky teen film about a high school filmmaker’s friendship with a classmate who has leukemia. “Me and Earl” will certainly garner quite a bit of attention, whether that attention is positive or negative really depends on where you look, but the second Sundance film may have to fight a little harder for the spotlight. Crystal Moselle’s debut documentary “The Wolfpack” follows the Angulo family who homeschooled their seven children in their Lower Manhattan apartment. Oscar Angulo, the patriarch of the family, believes that society is unsafe and prevents his children from leaving their cramped apartment except for once or twice a year. Thus, the six Angulo brothers and their sister learned about the outside world through watching and acting out films, and yet the Angulo children are still desperate to escape their claustrophobic nest.
Some critics have praised “The Wolfpack” for its vérité style, its compelling story, and its empathetic approach to isolation and exclusion. Other critics, such as our own Sam Adams, have criticized Moselle for the distance she places between the film and its subjects, and for ultimately assuming the role of the fly on the proverbial wall rather than a documentarian who has the power to control tone and mood of someone else’s story. Nevertheless, “The Wolfpack” contains all the ingredients of a crowd-pleasing Sundance film, complete with the self-reflexive attitude towards movies and the righteous rebellion at the heart of the film, but whether that adds up to a good documentary is entirely up to you.
More thoughts from the Criticwire Network:
Jordan Hoffman, The Guardian
Not since “Grey Gardens” has a film invited us into such a strange, barely-functioning home and allowed us to gawk without reservation. This is a nosy movie, but it is altogether fascinating. And, like “Grey Gardens,” it’s a story where every answer just spawns new questions. “The Wolfpack” won’t just “find an audience,” it will inspire people to revisit and peck for clues. Read more.
Kurt Brokaw, Independent Magazine
Moselle’s doc has a first feature, ragged-edge continuity, but its rough filmic execution is quickly forgiven. What “The Wolfpack” yields is the same kind of rich, only-in-New-York viewing rewards as Phillip Warnell’s feature length-doc, “Ming of Harlem: 21 Storeys In The Air,” which premiered last fall at The New York Film Festival. Read more.
Kate Erbland, The Playlist
“The Wolfpack” is a film about access, and though we are admitted into the world of the eponymous Wolfpack, not understanding how we got there robs the film of compelling commentary. Read more.
More thoughts from the web:
David Edelstein, Vulture
I have written of this wolf pack as if its members were interchangeable, but each is his own man and will evolve differently from his brother. What they share is a point of reference. Moselle’s cinematic coup is the boys’ filming of a ghoulish pageant redolent of Lynch, Méliès — stuff that seems dredged up from the unconscious of movie lovers. Critics of violent cinema — even those who, like me, love pulp and give lip service to the notion of catharsis — often lament its coarsening effect on the young and impressionable. The Wolfpack is a reminder that much of the “crap” we decry has the potential to liberate, offering a bridge off the island of terror we call the nuclear family. Read more.
Tasha Robinson, The Dissolve
But for all its rough, unfinished edges, “The Wolfpack” is absolutely mesmerizing. The Angulos have an incredible charisma, a blend of shyness and forcefulness that feels like all the ambition and uncertainty of youth magnified by circumstances to an incredible degree. Some of the footage is tremendously startling — particularly the eerie Halloween ritual where the participants wear homemade movie-character masks and dance in a circle before lighting a bonfire in the apartment, though a moment when the boys’ mother calls her own mother for the first time in more than 15 years is an emotional blow of a different kind. But the story itself is more significant than any individual sequence. To some degree, “The Wolfpack” mirrors any story about growing up, establishing independence, and escaping both parental control and an enforced parental perspective. But it’s so unique in its particulars, with such sad and charming subjects, that it finds its own identity as clearly as the Angulos themselves did. Read more.
Amy Nicholson, The Village Voice
Director Moselle treats the six boys like a unit. We’re never sure of their names and ages, and even their faces blur. This might feel slipshod — after all, we, too, are used to movies with heroes — yet it’s thematically smart. Under Oscar’s control, the sons aren’t individuals. No one’s ever asked one if he’d rather go out for a cheeseburger or a steak, if he’d prefer to swim or ski, to take French or Spanish, what he’d like to study in college. Inside the apartment, he can’t even dream of having his own dream. Before each can define his own identity, his own future, he has to take that first step toward independence. He has to leave the house and decide for himself where to go. Read more.
Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, The A.V. Club
“The Wolfpack” is strongest in early stretches, during which it presents elliptical glimpses of the Angulos’ ritualized, handmade private world. In other words, it’s better at depicting a group than at depicting individuals, which becomes a problem once the Angulos start venturing out into New York City. (The brothers’ similar speaking voices and identical long hairstyles, combined with frequently dim lighting, don’t exactly help matters.) And though it makes for some wry observations about the difference between reality and fiction — one brother expressing disappointment at how often people say “like” in real life, for instance — the movie’s second half often struggles to sustain interest or manage its subjects’ increasing independence. Read more.