'The Wolfpack': Sundance Review

Wolfpack Project
Courtesy of Sundance International Film Festival
This debut doc doesn't quite make the most of fascinating and likeable subjects

A documentary about six brothers (and their sister) raised in near-isolation in the heart of New York City

Scratching the surface of a story one suspects is a good deal thornier than what's explicitly shown here, Crystal Moselle's The Wolfpack introduces a gang of siblings who have been raised in near-complete isolation in downtown Manhattan. Benefitting from likeable, good-natured subjects and the peculiar pastimes with which they fill their cooped-up hours, the doc certainly gets us interested in and rooting for the Angulo boys. If it doesn't sate our curiosity in ways likely to generate huge art house business, that's partly because the real stories of their lives have barely started.

According to her director's statement, first-time feature filmmaker Moselle happened to meet the six brothers (all of them teens at the time) during the first week they all ventured outside together without parental supervision. After befriending them, she was allowed into the home they share in a housing project overlooking the Lower East Side's Delancey Street. Rail-thin with straight black hair hanging to their waists, the boys had spent almost their entire lives in these rooms, being homeschooled by their mother (a hippie raised in the Midwest) and watched over by a father (the Peruvian she fell in love with while abroad) whose fearfulness of New York crime led to this overprotectiveness.

At least in part. As we watch home movies and hear stories of their childhoods, we understand that Oscar Angulo isn't motivated solely by a desire to keep his kids from getting mugged. We hear intimations of abuse, get a sketchy idea of his attitude toward capitalism, and want to know more. But when Moselle gets him onscreen late in the film, she's too sensitive to push tough questions.

She also doesn't talk to neighbors or social workers, who presumably would have a lot to say about the family. Especially after the police brought in one brother the first time he ventured out in public, an episode that is recounted here and evidently led the others to be bolder about breaking Dad's rules.

That first explorer was arrested not because he did anything bad but because he was wearing a handmade Halloween mask. Looking like Jason as he wandered the streets silently, staring at all the things he didn't understand, he freaked people out. The costume wouldn't have been strange to anyone who knew his background: As most of their understanding of the world comes from the movies Dad brings home, the boys obsess over and make games of their favorites. They make inventive Batsuits out of yoga mats and cereal boxes; they transcribe the dialogue of Tarantino flicks and reenact them in Salvation Army Reservoir Dogs attire. Particularly drawn to horror movies, they even conduct a weird Halloween ritual that includes a small indoor bonfire — which thankfully didn't lead to a disaster.

Perhaps in keeping with her pack-of-wolves metaphor, Moselle never identifies the boys by name, and viewers will have to work a bit to keep their personalities straight. The press notes identify them and, with three sentences apiece, give more personal details on most of the siblings than she includes in the film. Suddenly, younger brothers who barely speak onscreen sound so interesting one resents not getting to know them better. Given the boys' own enthusiastic experiments with video cameras, maybe after a few years in the wild they'll make a self-portrait.

Production company: Verisimilitude
Director/director of photography: Crystal Moselle
Producers: Izabella Tzenkova, Crystal Moselle, Hunter Gray, Alex Orlovsky
Executive producers: Tyler Brodie, Cameron Brodie, David Cross, Louise Ingalls Sturgess
Editor: Enat Sidi
Music: Danny Bensi, Saunder Juriaans, Aska Matsumiya
Sales: Josh Braun, Submarine

No rating, 88 minutes