The film that closed Sundance this year has an awful lot to say about movies, but even more to say about childhood. It opens with scenes that are hard-wired into the cinephile mainframe: Messrs White, Orange, Pink et al. cracking wise about black waitresses and the pleasures of switchblade torture. These Reservoir Dogs, however, are played by stringy, faintly avian teenagers, filling their three piece suits like a line of tent poles. Their gunfights encompass a corridor and a single room bleached by wan light. For the children of the Angulo family, re-enactment is not an ironic or frivolous pastime; rather, it is their life blood, a reason to dream in the perpetual rainy day of their existence, and they attack their roles with relish.
Who are these budget Brandos? Well, as the title implies, they are a unit unto themselves. Director Crystal Moselle, a film school graduate, bumped into them on the streets of New York, wearing those bank-heist getups that would go on to form the central image of her documentary. It’s easy to see why she couldn’t resist making it – in some ways, The Wolfpack is about subjects that are almost too good to be true, packed with a hefty dose of silver screen worship and endearing moments of DIY charm. It comments on imaginative rebellion and suggests that learning the ins and outs of the stock exchange from Wall Street might not be such a bad thing. So far, so film school. Moselle’s talent is to remind us of the darkness behind this supremely a-typical family which, as uncomfortable as the situation may seem, offers a revealing experiment into how the mind reacts to near-imprisonment with 5,000 movies, while the nature-or-nurture argument embroils the very notion of “valuable” cinema. It’s immensely satisfying to know that a kid who watches films without any critical influence ranks The Godfather at the top of his list.
Her encounter with the Angulos was very lucky. Until recently they’d almost never left their apartment on Manhattan’s Lower East side, kept in fear of the wider world by their father, a work-shy alcoholic who once deplored first-world capitalism and now sags in his arm chair, resting a beer can on his belly. The oldest of his sons, Mukunda, holds most of our sympathy, since he’s already tried to break out of this domestic Alcatraz, wearing a Michael Myers mask so he’d be an anonymous drifter on the street. He was promptly arrested, and shades of that episode linger in his desire to move out, find a girl, and begin anew. Like his siblings, he is hobbled by a brain that doesn’t know how people talk without a script. He and his brothers (there is a sister, but she is hardly involved) reproduce their favourite flicks on video, making props and costumes out of anything they can find. Their cereal box Bat-suit is a thing of beauty. When the brothers make a wary trip to a local screening, Mukunda blurts with joy: “Our money is going to Christian Bale! I played him!”
The clan’s matriarch, Susanne, is a frustrating figure of compromise. Her relationship with Oscar, the father, is a mystery. What she still sees in him, and why she’s allowed him to maintain his poisonous influence, is never really understood. The Wolfpack has reams of footage at its disposal, so it is well-made to the extent that its most fascinating content was ready before Moselle came along. Nevertheless, this is a rewarding and intelligent debut, shot with pounds of empathy. The Angulo’s journey to a universe they’ve only seen in 35mm should be compulsory viewing for those who say cinema makes children out of adults. In this case, the opposite is true.
The Wolfpack is now on theatrical release in the UK. For more information visit www.thewolfpackfilm.com.
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