Although it’s not essential for a filmmaker to insert their own experiences and opinions into a documentary feature that chronicles the lives of other people (in fact, most documentarians doing so end up looking foolish and inept), Crystal Moselle’s “The Wolfpack” proves to be a confounding exception. Although Moselle only briefly asks questions off-camera during a handful of interviews — typically the right kind of distance for most films — what she fails to recognize is that she is very much a part of this film’s story, and keeping herself and her version of events out of the final product only adds to her film’s inability to effectively translate a fascinating story to the big screen. “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.
“The Wolfpack” centers on a band of brothers who live sequestered from the outside world by their parents in an apartment. They are entirely reliant on movies to show them what the world (a world that’s literally right outside their door) is like. That Moselle even met the brothers is shocking — at one point, one of the older boys reveals that they only go outside one to nine times per year. One year, they didn’t go out at all. When “The Wolfpack” opens, Moselle is already inside, and though it’s mentioned that she’s their very first invited guest, not knowing how she got there reduces the film’s genuinely unique and somewhat bizarre plotline.
How did she get in? How did they get out? How are we even watching this?
Moselle’s access isn’t the only lingering question of “The Wolfpack” — the picture often jumps forward in time (though the amount of time is unclear and various hints indicate that Moselle has failed or possibly declined to capture major events in the boys’ lives), leaving large gaps between both the narrative and our understanding of what we’re seeing. Moselle clearly met the boys after they’d started venturing outside, though the first act of the film is dedicated to laying out the basic elements of their situation. The family of nine — the boys have a younger sister who is rarely seen — have only ever lived in one apartment, which exists as their entire world. Curious and creative, the boys took to movies early on, eventually recreating them for fun. Although they rarely go outside, their tastes are worldly and wise, and they love films like “Gone With the Wind” and “Pulp Fiction” equally.
The family’s very livelihood is tied up in keeping the kids inside, as their mother is paid by the city to homeschool them. It’s an unsettling cycle: the family’s ability to make money and continue their pattern of not leaving the house or interacting with other people is entirely contingent on them not leaving the house or interacting with other people. The boys are clearly intelligent and are extremely polite and fun to be around. Their love of movies allows them to transform into different people, and while their loneliness and isolation is palpable, so is their optimism.
If there’s a villain in the feature, it’s the boys’ father, Oscar, who is presented as a potential alcoholic holding all of the keys to the castle. The film briefly alludes to possible abuse from their father — which is to say, abuse more physical and tangible than being kept inside a tiny apartment for the majority of their lives — though Moselle does not rail against Oscar and his decisions. She wisely avoids placing the blame, though it’s clear that the boys’ dazed mother is just as imprisoned as they are. Still, once the boys begin venturing out into the Lower East Side, their father doesn’t appear compelled to stop them.
That’s another question that Moselle fails to effectively answer: why does this man, so bent on protecting his children from the world outside their apartment, finally allow them to leave and to run free? At one point, the boys’ mother asserts that it was simply the right time for them to go, an aside excuse that echoes the attitude of the film: it was just the right time to happen, even if we’re never told why. [C+]
This is reprint of our review from the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.