If Chance the Gardner, the TV-educated savant played by Peter Sellers in “Being There,” had lived together with his six siblings, it might have looked something like “The Wolfpack,” a truly stranger-than-fiction portrait of a New York family who’ve taken great pains to shelter their children from the outside world, but not from the world of Hollywood movies. Indeed, so weirdly fascinating is the tale of the Angulo clan that one wishes “The Wolfpack” were that much sharper, more searching and coherently organized. Still, there is much to enjoy in director Crystal Moselle’s debut documentary feature, which if nothing else begs a where-are-they-now sequel a few years down the road.
There’s a certain fated coincidence to the fact that “The Wolfpack” premiered in Sundance on the same day as Alex Gibney’s “Going Clear,” another documentary about a hermetic community started by a self-styled guru with entertainment-industry aspirations. Only, unlike L. Ron Hubbard, the influence of patriarch Oscar Angulo doesn’t extend beyond the walls of his cramped, public-housing apartment on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
It’s there that the Peruvian-born Angulo — a failed musician with an aversion to work and an affinity for the bottle — and his hippie-ish American wife Susanne have raised their six sons and one daughter, all bestowed with ancient Sanskrit names and very, very long hair (byproducts of Oscar’s Hare Krishna faith). The children, who range in age from 16 to 24, have been home-schooled and, with the exception of rare, carefully supervised excursions, forbidden to leave the apartment. In an average year, one of the boys recalls early on in the film, they might set foot outside a half-dozen times; in some years, not at all.
Unlike many more socially permissive parents, however, the Angulos seem to have imposed no limits on what sort of movies their young’uns could watch. And the Angulo boys didn’t just watch; they began transcribing and memorizing the scripts of the movies they saw and then re-enacting them in the living room, complete with imaginatively lo-fi homemade props and costumes (and hand-drawn poster art). By necessity, their taste drifts toward ensemble fare: “Reservoir Dogs” is a personal favorite (as well as the inspiration for the brothers’ favored couture of dark suits and sunglasses), with “Pulp Fiction,” “The Dark Knight” and “No Country for Old Men” also in heavy rotation.
Cinema according to the Angulos lies somewhere between the fan-made “Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation” and the “sweded” movie remakes of the enterprising videostore clerks of Michel Gondry’s “Be Kind Rewind,” and watching the brothers create their elaborate homages is one of the consistent pleasures of “The Wolfpack.” To a one, they’re natural hams who seem, perhaps because of their unusual upbringing, to lack the hyper-self-consciousness and fears of embarrassment common so many teenagers in the societal mainstream. Of course, if there are some silver linings to growing up Angulo, there are also countless drawbacks — not all of which Moselle’s film seems prepared to address.
Like Jean-Pierre Gorin’s masterful 1980 documentary “Poto and Cabengo,” about a pair of Southern California twins believed to be speaking their own invented language, “The Wolfpack” is the result of incredibly privileged access to a family one wouldn’t expect to be so welcoming of a film crew, and the way Moselle obtained that access is something that begs to be explained in the film itself (and not just in the press notes). But even once she’s inside, Moselle doesn’t quite seem to have figured out how best to tell the story, or even which story she wants to tell. Structurally, the movie has a lurching, shapeless feel in which the exact chronology of events isn’t always clear and, more crucially, the boys (who aren’t identified with title cards until the end credits) never quite emerge as individuals with their own unique personalities.
Ostensibly, the movie pivots on the Angulos’ gradual opening of themselves to the outside world — events set in motion when the most authoritative of the bunch, 20-year-old Mukunda, sneaks out of the house wearing a Michael Myers mask and ends up in court-mandated therapy. But this only further begs the already nagging question of just how the family has managed to avoid such external interference for so long. Mentions of beatings the kids may have suffered at the hands of their father are, like too many other things in “The Wolfpack,” fleetingly made and then forgotten. Most of all, one craves to know more about how the boys’ experience of the real world compare to what they expected from the movies.
Near the end of “The Wolfpack,” we see Mukunda, who aspires to be a filmmaker, directing his siblings, parents and newly minted girlfriend in a short film of his own creation. Should he ever decide to take on his own family as a subject, now that would be something to see.