A true story of creativity in captivity

The Wolfpack documents the Angulo family, whose seven children were confined to their NYC apartment for over a decade, with movies as their only escape.

Three of the Angulo brothers

The Wolfpack is one of those documentaries whose subject is so fascinating that almost no film of finite length could truly do it justice. As viewers, we share in director Crystal Moselle’s fascination with the Angulo family, but there are inevitable questions that linger. It’s a testament to the film, then, that I think it could likely be eight hours long and still leave us with tons of unanswered questions.

In a dilapidated apartment building on Manhattan’s Lower East Side lives a family that’s not particularly unusual on paper: The father is from South America, the mother from a flyover state. They met while she was travelling in South America, fell in love and went to New York to find work and start a family. The Angulos had seven children, six boys and a girl (the sister barely appears in the film — while it is not explicitly stated, it is implied that she has some sort of disability), all of whom were given Sanskrit names and made to grow their hair long… and then they never went outside.

The Angulo patriarch, not a particular fan of Western society, instilled in his children the idea that the outside was a fundamentally corrupt and rotten world and that their lives were in danger if they were to step outdoors. Home-schooled by their mother, they were essentially raised on the bizarre combo of extreme overprotectiveness and obsessive watching of violent American films like Reservoir Dogs and The Godfather. With only these films as a portal to the outside world, they essentially recreate Hollywood fantasy through elaborate props and costumes that they film within the dim NYC apartment that constitutes their entire world — until the oldest decides to explicitly reject his father’s orders and venture out into the world.

Wolfpack Batman

The first of those aforementioned unanswered questions is exactly how Moselle got such an intimate vantage point into the very secretive world of the Angulos. Most press material that accompanies the film claims that Moselle just chanced upon the boys during one of their early outings, but that doesn’t really come across in the film, which takes a very removed ‘please do not tap on the glass’ approach to documenting their everyday lives. It’s obvious that Moselle has gained enough of their trust to be let into the innermost workings of their daily lives, but she very rarely actually interacts with her subjects, even when they speak directly to her.

The hands-off approach makes sense in that Moselle’s access seems precarious at all times — one false move and the whole thing comes crashing down. It remains somewhat maddening that Moselle never prods further or puts anyone (particularly the father, who appears sporadically and is always drunk and talking nonsense) on the spot. One wonders what a more confrontational documentarian (someone like Louis Theroux) would have made out of this story. Then again, the film (a Vice production that won the grand jury prize at Sundance) might not have existed were it not for Moselle’s guarded approach to her relationship with the Angulos.

They remain a fascinating subject by any measure. Since they had their siblings as a social circle, they’re not as socially awkward as one would expect from someone who spent at least 14 years of their lives completely sheltered from the outside world. Their sense of style is based entirely on the gangster movies they love, so they go to the beach decked out in black slacks and Hawaiian shirts like they’re cosplaying a Quentin Tarantino interview from 1994, and their recreations of said films are so accurate, they take on a kind of genius that transcends simple lo-fi parody (one of my favourite things about the film is how accurately these young boys mimic the speech patterns of Harvey Keitel or Samuel L. Jackson).

As the film progresses and the boys gain more autonomy, The Wolfpack’s storytelling becomes increasingly choppy (presumably due to Moselle having more restricted access to her subjects and more difficulty having them all together at once). The last 20 minutes are less a triumphant wrap-up and more of a confused trail-off, but even that doesn’t really sink The Wolfpack. Its flaws are inherent to the nature of the film’s subjects — it was probably impossible to avoid something that’s at once kind of ragged and kind of reserved — but on the bright side, this makes a ‘where are they now’ sequel a few years down the line not only desirable, but almost inevitable.

The Wolfpack opens at Cinéma du Parc (3575 Parc) on Friday, June 26. Watch the trailer here: