The Wolfpack (Crystal Moselle, 2015)

Reservoir dogs

Premiering at Sundance in 2015, where it won the U.S. Documentary Grand Jury Prize, The Wolfpack is a maddening documentary for opposite, simultaneous reasons: chaotic story framing and contrived framing. The film, from first time director Crystal Moselle, records scenes in the life of the Angulo family, a life confined – under the demands of a dictatorial father – to a small New York apartment. The mother and the 7 homeschooled children, 6 boys and 1 girl, are essential prisoners in their own home, where the boys’ only relief and only window to an outside world lies in the access they are granted to recorded movies, which they constantly watch and then elaborately reconstruct, acting out scenes from the likes of Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and Goodfellas.

In spite of such a compelling set-up, many moments in Moselle’s film – context, chronology, and even character – are so muddled, that even the harrowing subject matter fails and a viewer may be left feeling guilty for not caring. And in other moments, the purportedly candid, spontaneous scenes (egs. a first time ever trip to Coney Island, a phone call to a long lost relative) feel anything but candid, and one might wonder, uncomfortably, just how much the director was directing her subjects. Are these moments scripted, perhaps, in the way a reality TV show might be? Responses rehearsed or repeated to include questions and dramatic information? It’s an odd mix, the too neatly dramatic moments and the muddle of the overall story.

The chaos of the story-telling – the quick cuts, the jumps in time, the lack of context – is, I think, an aim at artfulness – and in the hands of a more experienced director, the cuts from one contextless scene to the next might have added up to emotional depth and a clearer arc. There are enough poignant instances – the camera held on the face of one boy or of their mother, a scene of vibrant dancing and running down tight hallways – for one to see the glimmers of a powerful film through the tangle. As it is, so deficient in the film craft one hopes for, a viewer might feel uncomfortably voyeuristic, complicit in something bordering on the exploitative and sensationalist.

Moselle’s choice to make the boys essentially nameless is also unsettling; we get a recital of their names at the beginning, but throughout the film, those names are lost in the “pack.” It is a deliberate choice, of course, to show the boys as so tightly connected to one another – a closeness that acts as survival mechanism, a closeness forced on them given the tight, prison-like living quarters – but the effect of the choice is that it alienates viewers from the boys as individuals, from their stories, from their emotions. As such, the larger story remains fuzzy, distant, cold.

And then, wandering round the edges of the film, acknowledged once initially and then mostly forgotten, is the sister who is “special,” a lonely vulnerable figure who perhaps holds the deepest poignancy; I left the cinema worrying for her most, and, ironically enough, it is her name, Vishnu, alone that I remember though even the director herself doesn’t seem interested in her.

I must believe Crystal Moselle’s heart is in the right place – the film feels like a sincere effort to tell a story and to tell it truthfully – but the skill, or lack thereof, undermines the effort too much to be able to recommend the film wholeheartedly. As my friend said to me as we walked out of the cinema, “I wish we’d just read an article about this family instead.” And given the cinematic interests of the boys in the family – their own love for film, and film itself, like their pack grouping, being a tool of survival for them – it’s a real shame. I wonder how they themselves will feel about this documentary about them, particularly when they (re)watch it years from now, more distant from the situation of their growing up? Will they, then, see it as an exploitation? A thoroughly mediocre film which rests, for its justification, on the trauma of their lives?

Watching a movie

One thought remains with me that perhaps, if valid, makes the film a good deal more interesting and a good deal less exploitative than an initial exploration of it provides: given the boys’ immersion in film – acting all their lives as watchers of film and as players to their own cameras and having, necessarily, a kind of savvy about seeing and being seen – we might wonder just how much they are playing to Moselle’s camera. If one suspects Moselle in directing them in certain supposedly candid moments, perhaps they, too, have a great deal more control over how they are being seen than even Moselle, making their own deliberate choices for how they behave for her camera.

We would like to believe a documentary offers a fly on the wall view into its subject, but we must admit no documentary can ever do this – something is always constructed, always left out, always performed. The camera changes the terms, changes its subject. And this film, perhaps more than many others, forces us to grapple with that.

(The Wolfpack plays at Crest Cinema Center July 4-July 9)