Imagine going out into the world for the first time, armed only with a Quentin Tarantino script as a reference manual. That's the predicament, and the weird joy, of six teenage brothers who spent their childhood cooped up in a cramped apartment in a wild and woolly neighborhood of New York's Lower East Side.
When at last the Angulos — children of an unemployed Peruvian father and a former hippie mother from the Midwest, who rarely left the house themselves — broke free and ventured out, they bumped into Crystal Moselle, a filmmaker who built up enough trust with the boys to make her first long-form feature out of their closeted lives. There may be another film to be made of how she did that, given the family's fear of strangers. But most of her fascinating documentary, The Wolfpack, is an artfully verite account of the strange life at home with the Angulos.
Over several years, Moselle hung out in their apartment with a hand-held camera, documenting a tribe who read the external world through the films they compulsively watched on television, and those they made themselves with home-made props and costumes scavenged by their father on his forays to buy provisions.
If you think that's not so different from other teenagers who live on their laptops, bear in mind that the boys' top 30 films, while heavy on blood and guts, also include Citizen Kane, Casablanca and Blue Velvet. Along with that refined aesthetic, it's hard to imagine a more cinematic-looking band of siblings, with their waist-length black hair and high cheekbones. The home-schooled boys (a mentally disabled older sister hovers on the periphery) are articulate, sensitive, exquisitely well-mannered and eager to stage for Moselle's benefit re-enactments of Pulp Fiction, for which they memorized the entire script.
For all its naturalistic vibe, The Wolfpack sometimes has the constructed feel of an intervention. Moselle helped out with the boys' home schooling and later set up a couple of them with jobs in media that smoothed their integration into society. She's part of the action — an excitable rock score shows off her own dramatic flair. Often the boys are performing for her, and it's not entirely clear whose idea it was for them to go out as a pack in Reservoir Dogs suits and shades.
Yet Moselle is also a patient observer who, without judgment or superfluous underlining, gradually teases out the pathos and the riveting dramas — some dark and disturbing, some bizarrely entertaining and heartening — of the parents, naïve casualties of a 1980s fantasy world, who tried to protect their children from a new century that, not without reason, they found terrifying.
The boys adore their gentle but passive mother, who educated and tried to shield them from their often drunk and sometimes violent father. What appears to have saved them, along with Moselle's help, is adolescent rebellion. The fear they inherited from their parents turns to anger at their father — though given that they lost their entire childhoods indoors, we might expect a lot more rage.
Under Moselle's compassionate gaze, Oscar Angulo comes across less as a villain than as a broken man, driven to confine the kids he loves by his own terror of the America in which he found himself, and by the failure of his own poignant ambition to become a rock star. With The Wolfpack, he may get his 15 minutes at last. As for his brood, when last we see them they're gamboling happily in green fields. I wish them all kinds of well, but I can't help thinking there's another film in their bumpy road ahead.