Andrew Jarecki’s Capturing the Friedmans has become the most influential documentary of the 21st century. Part psychological profile, part sociological case study, the film latches onto the exteriors of a notable news story, then locates the familial ruin that occurs within through an ex post facto assemblage of new interviews, juridical examination, and home-video footage. What has endured from Jarecki’s film is its cumulative interest in character relationships over societal indictment, the latter pushed to the margins in favor of animating human beings that are undergoing trauma. That’s not to say the film is too humanist; rather, it forges emotionally resonant ends by demanding impassioned personal accounts at the expense of sober, macrocosmic reflection. To borrow a sentiment from Eleanor Roosevelt: It’s a film about people and events, not ideas.
The Wolfpack, winner of the Grand Jury Prize for documentary at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, thoroughly adopts Jarecki’s tack, with director Crystal Moselle aiming her cinematic arrow at the hearts of the same choir that Jarecki’s stunted aesthetics preach to. Its high-concept documentary, capable of being pitched in a single line, like any Hollywood blockbuster: Six young brothers, who live in Manhattan with their parents, reenact their favorite films as a means to grapple with not being allowed to leave their Lower East Side apartment. The particulars of why the boys remain prisoners within their own home only concerns the film in passing, in brief explanations from their mother, Susanne, who decided along with her husband, Oscar, that their sons would be better served hidden from the “socialization” to be had outside. The premise is potentially fascinating, though not for the reasons Moselle settles into, where the affability and behaviors of the sheltered innocents takes total precedence over any larger socio-economic concerns. By simply profiling the minors through interviews and quotidian detail, Moselle gains access to their psychology and reveals them to be competent and intelligent, though the filmmakers seem uncertain as to what these revelations mean.
The film opens with the brothers playing out a scene from Reservoir Dogs. As is quickly revealed, they may be amateurs, but they take their productions quite seriously as pertains to costuming, blocking, and trying to mimic scenes in precisely the manner of their favorite films. Emphasis on mimic, as they aren’t out to re-interpret scenes or add their own flourishes, but script the films from their repeated viewings by writing down every line of dialogue, verbatim. Though the brothers claim to be aspiring filmmakers, they don’t shoot any of their reenactments, a point Moselle fails to elucidate. Thus, the performances are more akin to adolescents playing with action figures behind closed doors than any sincere attempt at an artistic creation to be shared with those beyond the confines of their apartment-cum-prison cell.
They have a taste for films with a penchant for assertive masculinity, worshipping Tarantino, The Godfather, and, a little more obscurely, JFK; moreover, they’re aware of consensus rhetoric about film canons, like that Citizen Kane is generally considered to be the greatest film ever made. While Moselle gives them the space to reveal their knowledge and strut their performative stuff, no pressure is applied to any number of pressing questions, namely how these adolescents have developed film tastes that jibe with comparable demographics on the outside, who experience more direct contact with marketing and cultural machines. Moreover, Moselle never makes clear precisely how the brothers obtain their films or exactly how much access they have to information via the Internet. When one of the brothers explains having heard about Google for the first time, it’s used as an innocuous non sequitur instead of a moment for detailed inquiry.
Were The Wolfpack digging deeper, it would forgo an extended sequence of the brothers dancing to Baltimora’s “Tarzan Boy” for a developed sense of how conventionally crippled social relationships via seclusion have been altered in an increasingly digitized milieu that doesn’t necessitate embodied mobility. Moselle is more attuned to family dynamics, like the increasingly hostile relations between the brothers and their father. There are few revelations to be attained here, especially since Moselle structures the film around unchecked patriarchy, with Susanne playing the same passive explicator of middle-class fragmentation provided by Elaine Friedman in Capturing the Friedmans. With only limited access to Oscar, who’s seen but seldom speaks, the film necessarily remains afloat through the unbridled enthusiasm of its young protagonists. If The Wolfpack doesn’t outright pander to nostalgic yearnings for adolescence regained, its refusal to seriously consider its subjects’ environs beyond their most excitable surfaces positions the film squarely within the crowd-pleasing, Jarecki school of skin-deep humanism.