Can you imagine six children growing up within the confines of an upper level apartment in the busiest metropolis in the world and only rarely experiencing daylight beyond what cascades through their windows? For many years this was the case with the Angulo clan in the heart of New York City as the children continued to grow under the tyrannical, suffocating, overbaked notion of protection held by their father. But as Crystal Moselle’s debut documentary The Wolfpack (2015) documents, these children are hardly the psychologically destroyed products you might imagine them to be considering the disturbing level of deprivation they’ve experienced.
The Angulos have long used cinema as a primary outlet to the world at large, their devotion to their favourite films manifesting itself in their hilarious, loving crafted re-creations. We see them regularly playing out particular scenes using props and costumes they’ve resourcefully made, often from discarded everyday household items. As the broader picture of their childhood emerges, a dark tinge begins to colour this often troubling portrait. Clearly, the family – including mother Susanne – have been living in a bubble, in a sense against their will. Conditioned to remain indoors like prisoners – except for a handful of brief, tightly controlled outings per year if they’re lucky – whilst their father went out to stock up on groceries, they have all been home schooled and taught by their deluded father to shun and fear contact with the outside world, a place he views as infected with crime and evil.
For the film’s first half, it seems the boys’ Peruvian born father will play little or no part in proceedings, thus depriving it of much needed perspective, but eventually the camera shy Oscar sidles into view, reluctantly it seems, however he’s not the articulate participant we might have hoped for. He fumbles to explain his strange, esoteric philosophies, the ones that might have severely damaged the boys’ prospects of any normal existence. The tale of Susanne is perhaps most tragic: a rural, Mid-Western upbringing and family abandoned for love of a man who failed to deliver on his promises. She has long been, seemingly, a helpless accomplice to her husband and the regrets that taint her recollections are coloured with a forlorn bitter edge.
Thankfully, there does turn out to be undeniable triumph in this story of the Angulos and great moments emerge from their initially tentative explorations outdoors, including a joyous, innocent-eyed first ever visit to a cinema and a beach. You could certainly accuse Moselle’s film of being overly insulated and lacking the objectivity of a more all-encompassing gaze on how these lives have taken shape. Might she also be remiss in not asking ‘bigger picture’ concerns of how societal responsibilities factor in to the family’s continuing plight? Regardless, for all its sympathetic subjectivity, what does emerge, most tellingly, is the indefatigable spirit of the boys: rather than allow themselves to be defined by their father’s beliefs, we see them shedding their skins in actively seeking a breakthrough and, refusing to be contained, confronting the wider world with renewed vigour for life.
The Wolfpack opens in Australian cinemas on Thursday, August 27, 2015.