Image © Samuel Spencer
It has become a cliché, but its repetition does not make it any less false. Many film fans find ourselves drawn to the movies because they give us a chance to escape, however briefly, into another world. But while most of us want just want get away from life’s every problems – bad jobs, poor relationship choices or the general mediocrity of reality, for some the power of film is the only thing allowing them to cope with genuine trauma.
This is the case with the Angulos, the subjects of new documentary ‘The Wolfpack’. After basically being imprisoned by a strict, heavy drinking alcoholic Hare Krishna father, only being allowed outside at very most nine times a year, the six Angulo boys (plus their little-mentioned sister) take to recreating films from their father’s extensive film collection, complete with meticulously realised cardboard props and scripts carefully transcribed from repeat viewings of films like ‘The Dark Knight’, ‘Pulp Fiction’ and ‘Reservoir Dogs’. Think the kids from ‘Dogtooth’ starring in ‘Be Kind Rewind’ and you have some idea of what to expect.
As such, ‘The Wolfpack’ has a difficult line to tread. After all, a film of the lives that turn their lives into film to escape how unlike film their lives are could be as difficult to interpret as the beginning of this sentence. To stop the whole thing becoming an exercise in film not only eating itself but scoffing down on a full all-you-can-eat buffet of itself would require the touch of a master. Someone who could fully empathise with the tragedy that led to these film recreations being created whilst also not losing themselves in this tragedy, losing themselves in the tragic life porn of a million Lifetime movies and airport paperbacks.
In this, director Crystal Moselle is only partly successful. That said, she does a staggering job for someone directing their first film. Using both the extensive film footage captured by the boys and their parents throughout their childhoods and quasi-talking head interviews captured at an indeterminate time, Moselle mostly constructs the film following the standard plotline of a Hollywood film, perhaps fittingly for the meta material she is using. Each character gets their own redemptive arc-of-sorts, most loose ends are tied up, and we even get a happy ending of sorts as the whole Angulo family frolic in a woodland, the camera slowly pulling away to allow a family reunited time together.
Although this was perhaps the most straightforward way to do things, it has its problems. Just as the Angulos begin making these films because they find in cinema a fair realm where heroes triumph and totalitarian dictators are punished that is very different from their real lives, this film suffers as a result in subscribing too hard to the rules of American narrative cinema. The neat story makes for a sometimes fascinating and always competent film you will want to discuss with people, but the more you discuss the more you will notice how much is left unanswered by ‘The Wolfpack’. How, for example, could the mother of these kids stay with this man who basically imprisoned her, even preventing her from speaking to her mother for decades? How could she have fallen for him in the first place? And what about the perhaps greater tragedy of their sister Vishna, who it is briefly implied may be developmentally disabled and as such is not able to escape this world through creativity?
Though of course no documentary can explore a world thoroughly and still run at feature length, the problem with ‘The Wolfpack’ is that it explicitly raises questions about all of these things and then provides entirely unsatisfactory answers. In my view, this footage could happily either had to be more thoroughly explored or it was better on the cutting room floor, to be replaced with more scenes from their film recreations. Their version of the ‘pencil trick’ scene from ‘The Dark Knight’, for example, or more of their pitch-perfect Steve Buscemi. If this footage is not a special feature on the DVD, it will be a travesty.
Though it does not succeed in all of its attempts, this is only because of the film’s ambition, trying to tell all angles of this engrossing story in under ninety minutes would challenge even the great meta directors, and so Moselle must be commended for how often she succeeds, aided by great footage and a clear narrative track to make a documentary that, although flawed, will linger with you for a while.