The Wolkpack is Equal Parts Fascination and Horror

Directed by Crystal Moselle
Magnolia Pictures, 89 minutes, R (language)
* * * *

What if Being There's Chance the Gardener was real? And what if there were seven Chances, all from the same family, each brainwashed with some very odd religious beliefs? Documentary filmmaker Crystal Moselle probes these questions in her fascinating look inside New York City's Angulo family, and the answers are probably not what you'd expect.

The film's title conjures tales and cinematic treatments of feral children such as Fran├žois Truffaut's The Wild Child (1969), Werner Herzog's The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser  (1974), or Geraldo Olivares' Among Wolves (2010). Most of the cases of children raised by animals and/or without human interaction are mythical (Romulus and Remus), undocumented (Hauser), or hoaxes (The Ostrich Boy, the Syrian Gazelle Boy, Ramu, Amala and Kamala), but several seem to be accurate. One could raise questions about The Wolfpack as a title. The seven Angulo siblings—six brothers and a sister, aged 16 to 24—are not feral, though their sole human contact is each other and they do indeed exhibit pack behavior. Family life is dictated by paterfamilias Oscar, a Peruvian-born convert to Hare Krishna who descends deeper into mysticism (psychosis?) after his marriage to Susanne, an American-born Flower Child.  Oscar comes to view himself as a holy man and guardian against the world's impurities, evils, and materialism. His children are given Sanskrit names such as Bhagavan, Makunda, and Govinda. In addition, they are home schooled, forbidden to cut their hair, and confined to a shabby Lower East Side apartment they exit only once a year (and some years not at all). Oddly, though, Oscar does not forbid television or DVDs, thus the children wile away the time with repeated viewings of blockbusters such as Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and The Dark Knight Returns. They also produce verbatim scripts and faithfully re-enact the scenes with homemade costumes, props, and scenery. The Angulo children may not have had the holiest of outside input, but they do grow up wildly creative, imaginative, and resourceful.

This is all well and good until the boys reach their teens and Borg-like group-think clashes with emerging individualism. But, like Chance the Gardener, the only social skills they possess are those they infer from TV and film. The first to sneak out of the apartment quickly attracts the attention of police and social workers when he pops in and out of New York shops wearing a Mike Myers mask because he was afraid people would be alarmed by his appearance! When the lads are allowed to go to an actual cinema for the first time, they hit the streets dressed in matching black suits and sunglasses like the ensemble cast of Reservoir Dogs.

Can such children integrate into mainstream society? How will Oscar react as personalities bloom and tresses are trimmed? These are among the unanswered questions; other include: How does this family support itself? Why is Susanne so passive? What do the kids think of Oscar's religious views? How did Moselle find this family and why did it agree to be filmed? It is intimated that there has been abuse—and Oscar is prone to drunkenness—just as it is implied that Susanne might be brainwashed and that daughter Krisna [sic] is developmentally disabled, but these things are never explained. In addition, the time sequencing is quite confusing in places and it's very hard to distinguish between the boys who, for most of the film, look alike and do not (yet) possess individual identities.

Moselle opts for voyeuristic filmmaking within a non-judgmental frame. That's understandable to some degree, as one certainly would not wish to get in the way of such intriguing material. On the other hand, Moselle's approach makes for rocky viewing on a meta level. In essence, we are watching Moselle watch the Angulos who are watching each other, gauging Oscar's reaction, and (occasionally) glimpse the outside world. As a five-times removed audience, though, it's hard not to desire more explanation and resolution. Desire it, but don't expect it. Let it be enough to bear witness to an extraordinary family. You will be fascinated and horrified, hopeful and angry, joyful and sad—probably in equal measures.
Rob Weir

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