Reviewing Crystal Moselle’s The Wolfpack should be an uncomplicated business: it’s spectacular, and everyone needs to see it. Haunting and funny and moving and sad and uplifting: name your adjective, it probably applies. But picking apart the precise reasons why it’s so damn worth a watch is tricky, simply because it strikes a chord on so many levels. Here’s the breakdown.
Over five years Moselle followed the story of the six Angulo brothers (the titular “Wolfpack”), who grew up almost entirely within a few cramped rooms in Lower East Side Manhattan. Their parents, a domineering father and downtrodden mother, terrified of what New York might do to their clan, almost never allowed their sons to go outside. And there we have the first in this list of Moselle’s achievements: she deserves every accolade, simply for finding this family. The Angulos protect their isolation so fiercely, yet they open up to her so completely. The sheer strangeness of the story she stumbles upon once inside, provokes a question: What wonderful and terrible things might be behind the closed doors of the apartments neighbouring yours?
The boys’ education in the ways of the world came through an enviable DVD collection. They escaped from their reality through faithfully recreating famous scenes. That’s where so much of the joy of this film comes from. But, (and here’s achievement number two) while this story could have been a whacky, real-life Be Kind Rewind, in fact it erupts into a coming-of-age tale, centred around a momentous shift in power within the family. These boys are at the point of becoming men – some are in their early twenties now – and testing the boundaries of the world their father has built them. The bubbling of rebellion is summed up in a picture-perfect shot: one wolf, in his home-made Batman costume, gazing out across Gotham as night falls. It’s a moment of epic proportions when Mukunda Angulo ventures outside alone. And it’s hard to ignore the meta-ness to all of this: you can only assume that in all their movie-viewing the Angulo boys must have come to recognise the coming-of-age tropes they’re embodying now.
Reality and art flirt with each other elsewhere, too: achievement number three. These boys really do want to be in the movie business, and some of their reenactments are genuinely good. You get the feeling that exposure through this film might actually get them to where they want to be. And so, the making of the film becomes the film, and art and life do that thing they tend to do. It’s a tricky balance that Moselle handles delicately.
And, finally (for the purposes of this all-too-brief summary) number four: perhaps the most incredible feat is just how understanding and sympathetic The Wolfpack is to its cast. Even towards those “complicated” parents. The sons of Oscar Angulo have had an upbringing that could very reasonably be termed “abusive”. But for all their disadvantages, the boys have something that others lack: a sense of self, and a genuine confidence that comes from knowing your pack’s got your back. Their shared and striking appearance marks them out as one of their unique tribe: it was something their father insisted on, but it’s also exactly what compelled Moselle to follow them down a Manhattan street, years ago. Moselle doesn’t impose her judgment on how that bond came about, and as a viewer, we’re not invited to either.
As much as the apartment walls are confining, Moselle’s film captures a world and a story of a much bigger scale. It’s worth taking a cue from the Angulo boys’ devotion to film and escaping completely into The Wolfpack.