The details surrounding the peculiar circumstances of first-time director Crystal Moselle’s documentary “The Wolfpack” suggest a scenario so outlandish it may as well be science fiction. Shot over the course of five years, the fascinating project captures the experiences of the Angulos, six New York teenager brothers and an older sister, trapped in a cramped downtown apartment for their entire lives by an overbearing father. With thousands of DVDs at their disposal, the Angulos learn everything about the outside world from cinema — including the desire for independence. But the intriguing moral questions pertaining to their situation largely remain out of the picture, deepening the mystery by implication. “The Wolfpack” explores its scenario exclusively through the voices of its subjects, and all the cryptic limitations that entails.
Moselle’s alternative strategy makes for a fascinating experience in which the full story lurks just outside the frame. Despite the mixture of vérité footage and home movies showing the Angulos in their apartment, “The Wolfpack” feels more in line with a form of ethnographic storytelling than anything else, because the story is told exclusively in terms of their relationship to it.
And what a relationship: From the first scene, when the boys put on black ties and reenact moments from “Reservoir Dogs,” Moselle plunges into a world in which familiar movies have taken on a different status. More than pure entertainment, they become the visual reference points for the Angulos in lieu of seeing the world in more detail. Just as they took these limitations for granted for most of childhood, “The Wolfpack” explores the boundaries of the apartment for nearly an hour before explaining the decisions that led to their entrapment.
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The enigmatic details of their lives — from their Sanskrit names to their eerily vacant mother — clearly reflect the eccentric desires of their Peruvian father, Oscar. A Hare Krishna with radical ideas about the corruptive forces of American society, he’s at once a menacing figure and something of a paradox with a penchant for rock ‘n’ roll. But so much of the movie has unfolded before Oscar appears in any contemporary footage that he takes on a near-mythological dimension — less man of the house than self-appointed deity.
While Oscar Angulo attempts to explain his philosophy with an eerily practical tone, there’s never any doubt that his decision has had a corrosive effect on the family’s development. With time, we learn of the pratfalls of their situation: Home-schooled and rarely allowed outdoors, they can seem to be stuck in arrested development. While it’s certainly entertaining to watch them dress up in costumes for various reenactments, the conditions behind these antics contain undeniably freaky connotations. When one of the brothers stands by the window in a homemade Batsuit, comparing himself to the caped crusader as he gazes out the window, there’s no trace of irony to the statement. “The movies helped us create our own kind of world,” he asserts, which makes it hard to believe they could handle themselves in the real one.
That perception turns out to be an accurate one, at least as far as “The Wolfpack” tells it, through the bracing recollection of one family member who decided to escape. Wearing a Mike Myers mask as he wandered through downtown Manhattan, he eventually ran into trouble with the police and was forced to spend time in a psychiatric hospital. While other filmmakers may have found witnesses to the event to flesh out its details, Moselle solely relies on the Angulos to recall it, which means we don’t know exactly how their situation has been perceived by authorities in the past — or if any of them attempted to change the situation. That makes it difficult to parse the bigger picture of their burgeoning adulthood. But at the same time, it takes “The Wolfpack” away from the realm of investigative journalism and closer to an allegory for the dangers of social conditioning.
Having spent five years filming the family, the director seems eager to keep the story on their level of awareness. While we never witness any major outbursts or defiant behavior, the Angulos’ ability to speak coherently about their desire to revolt shows the extent to which they have grown to resent their father’s rule. There are times when the movie begs for more information, particularly in the climactic scenes, when their future is uncertain. But the puzzling nature of their conundrum is made especially compelling for that same reason. “The Wolfpack” arrives on the verge of a private revolution. “His system is a ticking bomb,” says one of the Angulos of their father. By the end of “The Wolfpack,” the ticking may be louder, but the bomb has yet to explode.
“The Wolfpack” premiered this weekend at the Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.