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Friday, June 19, 2015

Review: The Wolfpack

"I was fifteen years old, I wasn't allowed to walk out my front door."

In 2010, film school graduate Crystal Moselle noticed six boys, from pre-teen to eighteen, walking around New York City dressed like characters from Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs. Curious, she befriended the young men, and in doing so stumbled upon the story of a lifetime. The six boys, it turned out, had lived in New York City all their lives, sharing a NYC apartment with their older sister and two parents... and they had almost never been outside before. Their father, Isaac, paranoid about the dangers of the city, forbade his family from leaving their home except in rare group treks, a couple times a year. Consequently, the home-schooled children had no idea what the world was like. But what they did have was a DVD player and a lot of free time.

Anyone who talks and thinks regularly about art will likely find this a powerful film, particularly as the Angulo boys talk about the importance movies played in helping them stay sane and find a window to the world outside. As one boy says, "It makes me feel like I'm living sort of. 'Cuz it's kind of magical, a bit." It's easy to be dismissive of escapism as a drive we all have, but we often forget how these stories give us a window to another world, to another culture. Roger Ebert once called film "a machine that generates empathy," and that works both ways here. Seeing the kids create their own takes on the films of Tarantino and Christopher Nolan has a low-fi charm pulled straight from Michel Gondry's Be Kind Rewind, but it's also how they learned what the world looks like, something you can sometimes see by the postures they put on when they finally start to leave the house more and more. Film is a shared language, the bridge that lets us into their apartment and lets them into our world.

But this isn't just a movie for cinephiles. The Angulo clan is fascinating, and Moselle has a huge cache of family videos to dig through to give us a glimpse of the family before the rebellion. Their father, Oscar, is barely a presence in the film, as the kids had to basically wrest control of the house in order to leave, but it's notable how little a presence he was even in the old videos they have. The rest of the family, however, make frequent appearances in the home videos, which are a treat to see. It's also interesting how little Moselle tries to turn this into tragedy porn; the Angulo family has had hard times, but they're intelligent, upbeat kids, and their natural charisma make it easy to hang out with them here. We follow them as they see their first movie in theaters, as they make their first visit to Coney Island, and it's an incredibly joyous experience.

Unfortunately, Moselle made one decision that will likely confuse a lot of viewers: She doesn't give name-cards to each of the boys, making it difficult to tell who we're following, particularly during the film's copious use of old home-video. Her rationale for doing so - essentially, that even with cards audiences had a hard time telling the boys, who all look and dress very similarly, apart, and that treating them as a family unit rather than telling six individual stories worked far better - is eminently sensible, but it does blunt the impact of the film's ending. The real exception is their mother, similarly trapped in the home, who gets the film's most heartbreaking scene. Indeed, it's Susanne who provides the film with the ending it needed, stepping in during the movie's back half and quietly grounding things as Moselle begins to wrap up.

At once fairly flawed and still absolutely essential viewing, The Wolfpack doesn't fit well within our expectations of what a documentary - or a movie - should be. But far from being a weakness, its focus as almost an ethnographic study helps the movie stand out amidst a field of more traditional documentaries, and Moselle really does get an incredible amount of access into their lives. If unanswered, or unasked, questions bother you, The Wolfpack will be an incredibly frustrating experience. But for me, the film's study of the Angulo clan was too engaging, too fascinating to miss. We may never really know all the "whys" of the story, but then, can we ever? What we will know is a group of charismatic young men and what escapism, creativity, and growing up meant in their unique circumstances. It's enough.

The Wolfpack is out now in limited release from Magnolia Pictures, and it comes to Atlanta's Midtown Art Cinema on Friday, 6/19. The Wolfpack was directed by Crystal Moselle.
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