The story of the subjects at the heart of The Wolfpack is an easy sell for a documentary. The six Angulo brothers, confined to a ludicrously small apartment in Manhattan and rarely seeing the outside world thanks to an overbearing and overprotective father, live vicariously through their prodigious movie collection, spending their days recreating their favorite scenes from Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and The Dark Knight. Their ingenuity and passion is infectious, as they craft props out of whatever they have around, such as a particularly impressive Christian Bale Batman suit forged from a yoga mat and empty cereal boxes. Of course a documentarian like Crystal Moselle must have been champing at the bit to find the closest camera to record their every move. Is there anyone who wouldn’t?
It feels like it cannot be a coincidence that there are six Angulo boys to match the six gangsters at the center of Tarantino’s directorial debut. That famous slow motion credit sequence has had a profound influence on their lives and their wardrobe; it is rare that they are seen in anything other than those trademark black suits. That love of film they inherited from their father plays out through a trove of home videos. The nature of their lives is such that Moselle could only have met them after they began to integrate into the outside world. Thus, the early experiences of the brothers are framed by these home movies and candid interviews, as they unfurl the tale of a family who, their dreams unfulfilled, found themselves trapped in this tiny apartment, barely containing their increasingly large numbers of offspring. The father tells a story of how he would walk past drug dealers and gang violence on his way in and out of his building, and judged the city to be too dangerous for his young children. So they would only leave the house one or two or maybe even zero times a year, nurtured by the flickering of the TV screen.
Much of this footage is striking, such as a Halloween celebration in which they march around a tiny Wicker Man of straw in an impossibly tiny room dressed as various horror characters (Michael Myers, Freddy Kreuger, the Headless Horseman, etc) while listening to “This is Halloween” from The Nightmare Before Christmas. This is what the holiday can mean to these boys who have never had the opportunity to celebrate it like the rest of the world. Impressively, they seem relatively well-adjusted given the circumstances of their upbringing, perhaps a little behind the curve socially, but not nearly as stunted as one might assume. As they begin to reach physical maturity, the boys understandably begin to rebel against their pseudo-prison, slowly making their way into the world. This is where Moselle comes in and the film shifts more from retrospection to introspection, as they discuss the ramifications of their adolescence and their parents begin to speak to the camera more often. It is a melancholy feeling, as the father comes a bit more to grips with the consequences of his actions, even if they did come from a desire to protect them, twisted it may be.
As the boys continue to grow and leave the homestead, they begin to distinguish themselves a tad, though at times it can be difficult to connect who they are now to who they once were. For so long, they were practically indistinguishable, with their long hair and their Tarantino suits and their sunglasses, as well as a lack of any sort of descriptive chyrons during interviews, that it is at times difficult to connect the people they became with the people they once were as they begin to diverge from their tight knit group. It ends up feeling like two distinct films, one about their youth and one about their emerging adulthood, but the sections about who they have become do not capitalize on the momentum of what came before. There is a marked difference between the efficacy of the home video and what was filmed by Moselle to the point that The Wolfpack becomes a bit of a downward slope. It is heartening that the Angulo boys have been able to carve out lives for themselves as they grow older, but the practice of watching them do so is not nearly as interesting as one may expect it to be.
Considering how things end up, The Wolfpack cannot help but feel like a letdown when seen as a whole. It has moments of wonder and joy and ingenuity, but these moments are the setup instead of the destination, and the destination lets them down. The film is at its best when wading through the imagination of these young men, whether through the “sweded” recreations or the filming of one of the brothers’ incredibly odd short film that caps the documentary. These scenes in themselves are enough to give the film some worth even if much of it would be considered a letdown on balance. Upon leaving the theater, one is left to wonder what The Wolfpack would have been like if the boys would have made it themselves.