The Wolfpack Dir. Crystal Moselle

[Magnolia Pictures; 2015]

Styles: documentary

To discover the root of all language, a Pharaoh gave two newborn babies to a shepherd. No words were to be spoken in their presence, so that when they did form speech, whatever language was innate to all humans would be revealed. Come the day that one of them finally spoke, the Pharaoh declared that the child was talking in Phrygian — although to others, it sounded uncannily like the bleating of a sheep. In Crystal Moselle’s documentary The Wolfpack, the Pharaoh is reincarnated as Oscar Angulo, father to seven children, all raised in the confines of a tiny Manhattan apartment with only VHS tapes for entertainment. Like the Pharaoh’s experiment, the results were mixed.

The brothers are the focus here as they break free of Oscar and take tentative steps into the outside world. Initially they seem like characters from a horror movie, Indian braves dressed as Russian mobsters. An early sequence depicts them parading around a burning tree in some bizarre Halloween ritual, while in another, the eldest brother sneaks out to wander town in a Michael Myers mask. A homemade one. Watching these scenes, it would be natural to expect the story to take a dark turn, especially with Black Sabbath droning on the soundtrack. That it doesn’t is the film’s biggest surprise.

Though Oscar Angulo remains elusive, Moselle draws out another example of monomaniac obsession: the brothers’ obsession with cinema. From their lovingly crafted remakes of movies like Pulp Fiction and The Dark Knight, through to their foray into original filmmaking, we see the unexpected benefits of their strange upbringing. Like the bleating boy from the Pharaoh’s experiment, it’s hard to tell if their talent is innate or imitative, but that’s beside the point. The constant diet of movies, intended by Oscar as a substitute reality, turns out to be a massive advantage for the boys when looking for work or forming new friendships.

Already some critics have described the film itself as a substitute reality, questioning the timeline of events and Moselle’s involvement in them. These concerns shouldn’t detract from her achievement in finding a positive story to tell here. By allowing us to share in the little triumphs of the Angulo brothers, The Wolfpack is far more nuanced than its premise suggests. It’s also worth noting that despite spending many years of their lives completely cut off from society, each of the brothers is far less socially inept than I’ll ever be. Maybe that pharaoh had the right idea after all.

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