There’s a moment in Crystal Moselle’s The Wolfpack where a young man, Mukunda Angulo, says that memory is a curse. Mukunda and his siblings have spent the better part of their lives all but forcibly confined to an apartment in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, and as he’s interviewed by Moselle, it’s clear that he’s speaking about his own memories of growing up with Oscar, his paranoid, controlling, Peruvian-born father, who insisted the family avoid interacting with society whenever possible. To alleviate much of what he’s witnessed in the cramped quarters of his home, the Angulo brothers became obsessed with movies, and they spend a lot of their time ingeniously remaking them with lo-fi equipment. In relaying the actions that lead to the Angulo siblings, along with their mother, to increasingly venture outside, Moselle conveys a slight semblance of the power of film to augment, reshape, and occasionally rewrite memory, and the first-time filmmaker’s meandering technique and style mirrors the excitement and sense of discovery that highlight Mukunda’s first directorial attempts.
When the children reenact a scene from A Nightmare Before Christmas, the camera marches around with them, panning wildly left and right while taking in the creative costumes and the pit fire in the middle of the living room that no one seems all that concerned about. The camerawork is sloppy yet energetic, matching the way the siblings’ excited chases and mock action sequences, played out in cardboard costumes and thrifty wardrobes, are shot. Quentin Tarantino flicks and mordant blockbusters like The Dark Knight and No Country for Old Men are their more favored productions, and there’s an endearing inventiveness and sense of pent-up inspiration to the siblings’ lo-fi remakes.
Film is largely portrayed as a positive influence in The Wolfpack, crucial to helping build a healthy curiosity and hunger for expression. The director, however, balances this with moments that also show the cryptic, alienating effects of cult movies. When Mukunda first ventures outside of the apartment on his own, he wears a Michael Myers costume, and decides to silently roam in and out of local New York City shops, which concludes with him getting arrested. In essence, both Mukunda and Oscar’s worst fears are realized, but the confidence and necessity of Mukunda’s first trip outside alone, aided by horror-film iconography, completely detonates Oscar’s controlling dominance over his son. The event moves the rest of the family to defy Oscar’s reign as well.
The Angulo family’s increasing comfort with the world outside Oscar’s unwieldy, fear-based philosophies is the focus of Moselle’s film, and she captures their growing liberation on several levels, if not exactly extensively enough. The director is dedicated to Mukunda’s film-centric liberation, giving ample screen time to his screenwriting, filmmaking preparation, and doing production assistant work on film sets, the unfortunate byproduct of which is that the other stories in the household are hugely marginalized. One of Mukunda’s brothers moves out and begins to become an anti-fracking advocate, and his mother makes strides to reconnect with her parents, but these major shifts are only viewed with a cursory curiosity. Oscar is seen mostly watching television alone in his bedroom, and Wolfpack suggests that the pushback from Oscar once Mukunda broke his rules was minimal. Through interviews and home videos, Moselle succeeds in evoking both the fear and threadbare comforts that Oscar provided his family, but she offers no cohesive impression of what made him stop caring about his absolute control over his wife and children.
As the film goes on, Moselle’s slapdash, borderline indifferent aesthetic shortchanges the more fascinating elements of her subject. The Wolfpack is a great scoop, a high-caliber personal-interest story with designs on the humanistic power of mainstream cinema, but Moselle cobbles her footage together into a shambling narrative that could have just as easily been produced as an extended 60 Minutes segment. To be fair, the Angulo siblings and the peculiarities of their closed-off existence are captivating enough to keep the film involving regardless of the director’s form, but there’s rarely a palpable sense of what especially drew Moselle into this world, or what the Angulo family saw in her to let her in. Her stylistic absence is conspicuous, especially in contrast to how she shows Mukunda’s artistic ambitions growing and becoming more expressive. Moselle ends her film with Mukunda and his siblings making an original short with homemade sets and costumes, and working with a young actress that Mukunda clearly has a small crush on. The Wolfpack similarly stirs up a sincere excitement for new experiences, a life beyond what you know, and in its provocative look at filmmaking, it offers a vision a bright, talented director gaining his own voice being filmed by a likewise promising filmmaker struggling to find hers.
The Tribeca Film Festival runs from April 15—26.