25 October, 2015

"The Wolfpack" Review (****)

"The Wolfpack:" Mukunda, Bhagavan, Govinda, Narayana, Jagadisa,
and Krsna Angulo.

Almost five years ago, five tall, dark, and slender full-suited boys in sunglasses ran past Crystal Moselle on First Avenue in the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

"I had a hunch there was something going on there. So I chased after them," said Moselle, Director and Producer of "The Wolfpack" during the Q&A after its Savannah Film Festival screening on October 24th. "They asked what I do, and I told them I was a filmmaker, which made them really excited. They'd only been out for about a week."

Director/Producer Crystal Moselle and Associate Producer
Megan Delaney on the Savannah Film Festival red carpet.
Moselle spent 4.5 years discovering, shooting, and revealing the "something going on." All six Angulo children—Mukunda, Bhagavan, Govinda, Narayana, Jagadisa, Krsna, and Vishnu, the only girl—spent their entire childhoods in a small apartment in Lower East Side project housing. Fearing the influence and dangers of the outside world, their parents, a Peruvian alcoholic with a Messiah complex and a Midwestern country girl who obeyed him, kept all seven kids locked inside. Starved of friends and exposure to society, the Angulo brothers escaped into movies and each other. 

"I made my top 30 list; it's right here," exclaims Bhagavan. "Godfather I and II are at the top. We all agree on that."

Govinda transcripts entire classics for fun, copying subtitles by hand and typing final script drafts with his typewriter. Mukunda builds an entire Batman costume from cereal boxes and yoga mats. In one of my favorite scenes, the brothers reenact a scene from "Pulp Fiction" so astutely that I recall Wolfpack cameos from Vincent and Jules. A neighbor even calls the cops to investigate a weapons possession, resulting in the officers' praise of such realistic duct tape handguns.

Mukunda Angulo as Batman in "The Wolfpack."
One of Morelle's many successes with "The Wolfpack" (coughcough U.S. Grand Jury Documentary Prize at Sundance) is the internal conflict the story sparks. No doubt her dedication to and delicate architecture of such a tale are triumphs themselves. But she implores me to ask myself over and over again whether the story is happy or sad. And, in large part due to what happens next, the answer is elusive but clear: it's both.

Seizing a three hour window during which his father leaves to shop for food, Mukunda, the third youngest and most fearless, escapes. He dons a handmade mask so that no one—especially not his father—will recognize him, unlocks the door, and begins to explore the East Village. When unnerved shop owners call the police and Mukunda, still conditioned by a refusal to speak to strangers, fails to explain himself, the officers take him to a mental hospital for treatment. 

This environment would be a foreign social setting to most of us, but all social settings are foreign to Mukunda, and the people he meets here cement his desire for freedom. Upon returning home, his father, upset by his mutiny, disowns him. But Mukunda houses a philosophy many of his brothers share: the prison their father created cannot be resolved or forgiven. It is passed, and there is nothing to say. Not to their father, anyway. There is, however, an entire world outside ready to watch their short films, hear their story.  In delivering this intimate portrait of love, trust, fear, isolation, growth, and transformation, Moselle connects not only the world with the Angulos, but the Angulos with each other.

Five Angulo brothers suit up in "The Wolfpack."
Shot primarily by hand inside the rundown apartment and supported by hours and hours of home video footage, Moselle's collection of Angulo musings, theories, and performances-within-performances does tend to drag at times. But this story pulls value from an infrequent trapped feeling. 

"A year ago, if we had seen you, we wouldn't have said a word to you," Govinda reminds Moselle. "You're the first person we've ever invited inside."

It's this transparency and proximity offered Moselle by the Angulo family that Moselle offers us in return. The transfer of concern, wonder, and relief is thorough but unsuspecting. For 98 minutes, we are locked in our seats, momentarily members of this family by choice instead of chance. That's what's special about this documentary in a singular way. The nature of their confinement and isolation may have withheld from us their imagination, compassion, creativity, ambition, desire. By viewing the product of their private lives, we become part of the story.

"The Wolfpack" is tender, humorous, challenging, and reverent. Where some stories come of age, this one goes. And lucky for you, it's available on demand.

4 out of 5 stars.

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