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A band apart

Film Review: "The Wolfpack" 

A band apart

In case there's any doubt about how movies inform our worldview, here's a random exchange I overheard at my job yesterday:

"What's a Hare Krishna?"

"It's those guys from f**kin' 'Airplane!' with the shaved heads." (Just ignore the superfluous cursing; I work in a restaurant kitchen.)

Cultural references like that one aren't an anomaly in 21st-century American life. But imagine if you learned about humanity solely from watching movies in your little Lower East Side apartment, even though -- and certainly because -- the planet's biggest melting pot was simmering on the other side of your front door. The six Angulo brothers actually spent their childhoods in front of a television, confined to their Manhattan home by a domineering father who nonetheless loved movies. They eventually mustered up the guts to sneak out into their neighborhood, and this gaggle of skinny, long-haired teenagers -- outfitted like stand-ins for one of their favorite films, "Reservoir Dogs" -- caught the attention of documentary filmmaker Crystal Moselle. Their serendipitous meeting has resulted in "The Wolfpack," an absorbing portrait of family, resilience, and the power of cinema.

"If I didn't have movies, life would be pretty boring, and there wouldn't be any point to go on," one of the Angulo boys says, a sentiment silently echoed by his brothers in a cozy scene where they eat lasagna (another favorite) and sit transfixed by David Lynch's "Blue Velvet." On their walls are crayoned posters devoted to many of the several thousand movies in their collection. And when the Angulos aren't watching movies, they're making them: transcribing the dialogue, recreating the costumes -- the Dark Knight outfit, for instance, is made of yoga mats and cereal boxes -- and filming on their parents' camcorder. Moselle deploys a split screen juxtaposing the original and Angulo versions, and the recreations are funny and accomplished, if bittersweet. These movies exist because the Angulo brothers were forbidden from having friends or getting fresh air more than a few times a year.

The tale of the Angulo boys -- they're all named after Hindu deities, though Moselle doesn't identify them till the end credits -- begins with their father Oscar, a Peruvian man with an obvious God complex ("My power is influencing everybody," he claims) and anti-capitalism views that conveniently prevented any gainful employment. By the time we meet Oscar, however, his sons have ventured outside alone, and whatever control he exercised has clearly dissipated. "The Wolfpack" portrays Oscar as a petulant alcoholic, offering up passive explanations for what happened to his kids without taking much ownership for his sole role in the abuse. But it's through their attitudes towards their father that the Angulo boys demonstrate a surprising maturity considering the circumstances of their upbringing. "I felt he overdid it," one young man says of Oscar's extreme overprotectiveness, an understatement given the fact that one year they didn't leave the house at all.

We also get to know Oscar's wife Susanne, a meek Midwesterner who home-schooled her bright children in response to the paranoid Oscar's dictates, and it's apparent that she too has spent the last couple decades under Oscar's thumb. (One of her sons alludes to their mother having it even worse than they did, though Moselle provides no follow-up.) And as her sons spread their wings, Susanne begins to forge a reconnection with the world as well, including a happy phone call to her own mother that seemed a long time in coming. It's initially heartbreaking to see Susanne wrestle with a haunting blend of codependency, guilt, and her own victimization, but the joy she exhibits at seeing her charismatic children bloom in the sunlight is palpable.

There's an early scene where the Angulo boys prepare a meal for Moselle at their apartment, each of them adorable in aprons but dressed for dinner, and we learn that Moselle is the first guest to be invited over. Ever. It's a tossed-off revelation that drives home the fact that, with "The Wolfpack," we're witnessing something quietly momentous, even life-changing. Moselle was able to film the Angulo family over nearly five years, chronicling their journey from cloistered teens to unfettered young men, despite the fact that when she met them on the street, not long after they had first dared leave the apartment, the boys weren't allowed to talk to strangers. But then the Angulo brothers found out Moselle made movies, and ... action.

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