The Wolfpack review: a militantly odd hymn to the resilience of the human spirit

This documentary shows how the seven Angulo siblings, contained for years in a New York apartment, developed their own strange microculture

This week, Tara reviews The Wolfpack, an astonishing documentary about six brothers raised in captivity, and Donald reviews Paper Towns, the latest adaptation of a John Green novel. Plus, Donald reveals "the greatest threat to cinema today".

Film Title: The Wolfpack

Director: Crystal Moselle

Starring:

Genre: Documentary

Running Time: 90 min

Sat, Aug 22, 2015, 11:58

   

It would be wrong to trivialise the often-awful lives of the Angulo family. But their weird story does play like a cruel experiment by a sociology professor who, despite his madness, has been paying close attention to how the modern human learns about the world. The seven siblings – six boys and one girl – were, throughout their childhood, kept confined within their parents’ small home. Whole years went by without them venturing outdoors.

Eventually, in the manner of a character from the Brothers Grimm, one of the elder siblings squeezed his way into the real world and began the process that ultimately resulted in Crystal Moselle’s mysterious, deeply unsettling documentary.

All this would be weird enough if the clan had been raised in rural Montana or some sprawling suburb of Chicago. Oscar Angulo managed, however, to contain his children within a modestly sized apartment in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. For a decade-and-a-half, just a few blocks from SoHo, the siblings developed their own bewildering microculture.

Angulo, who met his wife Suzanne when he was acting as a guide in Machu Picchu, seems to have been assailed by all sorts of post-1960s ideological fixations. A sometime Hare Krishna, he set out to sire 10 children, but the unfortunate Suzanne was unable to deliver more than seven. In New York, he developed a haphazard libertarian paranoia – something that sits slightly uneasily with the family’s dependence on welfare – and declared that they would remain protected from the dangers of the outer world.

The miracle is that the children somehow survived the experience to grow into creative, amusing people. Movies on video provided release, education and inspiration. All experience is mediated through the stories of such pictures as The Godfather, Taxi Driver and, most conspicuously, Reservoir Dogs. When describing their father, the boys – all long, straight hair and beautiful dark features – appear to be nodding first to Gone With the Wind (another favourite). “I always metaphorically describe our childhood as him being the landowner and us the people who work on the land,” one says. “But if you want a more dramatic setting, we were in a prison and at night our cells would lock up.”

It gets odder still. Home- schooled, kept away from their peers, they began transcribing the scripts of favourite films and acting them out. The resulting work forms a singular school of Outsider Art. Guns are manufactured from cardboard and tinfoil. Dialogue is belted out in perfect impersonations.

There is too much to parse in one sitting. A great deal of the film’s appeal comes from the unavoidable conclusion that we are watching a terrifyingly extreme version of what all children have gone through since the arrival of mass media. The imposition of popular culture on real life – familiar to every child who has cocked a finger in imitation of a TV cop’s revolver – has, in the barmy scientist’s experiment, been pushed to complete saturation. Along the way, we end up with an accidental meta-narrative resting on fragmented cinematic footnotes.

Moselle’s militantly odd film, presented without voice-over and little wider context, is structured with a looseness that sometimes borders on the chaotic. But, combining home video with newly recorded footage, she scatters clues towards half-told stories at every turn. The film’s most chilling moment sees the younger Oscar – a pathetic figure in the “present” – kissing each of his half-naked children on the mouth. No explanation is offered. None is much desired.

For all that, The Wolfpack ends up being a rare work that deserves the most sentimental of recommendations: it is a hymn to the resilience of the human spirit. Even the talented Angulo children might find it inimitable.