Movie review: ‘The Wolfpack’ shines light on kids raised in captivity

My jaw dropped. Watching this sad and disturbing documentary about the Angulo family, I was drawn in, and yet repulsed, for “The Wolfpack” raised more questions than it answered.

And that’s the frustrating dilemma regarding this darling that reaped the Grand Jury Prize in Documentary from the Sundance Film Festival.

Six brothers and their developmentally challenged sister have been raised in captivity, almost like a cult, by their anti-social parents.

Their Michigan-raised mom Susanne is a timid caged animal, a former hippie who married a Peruvian hiking guide, Oscar Angulo, an ex-Hare Krishna who wanted to create his own tribe. He gave his children Sanskrit names and closed them off from society.

He is the tyrannical ruler of his increasingly rebellious brood, who learned how to interact by watching thousands of movies.

Not mere cinephiles, the long-haired kids view movies as their lifeline, their link to an outside world they have been forbidden to be a part of for nearly all of their lives.

Instead, they re-enact scenes from favorite movies, painstakingly speaking verbatim dialogue and wearing elaborate homemade costumes. Violent crime dramas from directors Quentin Tarantino and Christopher Nolan are favorites, as are cinema classics.

Home-schooled by their mother, they are remarkably well-spoken and creative. As to how well-adjusted they are, we aren’t given the whole story. The dad, who has the key to the apartment, would allow them to leave only a couple times a year. One year, they didn’t leave their public-housing in Manhattan’s Lower East Side at all.

Oscar, an apparently abusive alcoholic barely seen and talked about frequently in the past tense, never wanted to work, but has no problem with his kids getting famous for making music or movies. What kind of father treats his children like prisoners?

First-time director Crystal Moselle happened upon her subjects one day on the streets. Because she was a filmmaker, and that’s their passion, they allowed her access into their lives. She was their first visitor to the apartment.

She filmed them over a course of four or five years, but didn’t have a journalist’s instinct to ask the tough questions. Why haven’t the authorities intervened? Do they live on welfare? Where do they get the money to finance their enormous DVD collection? Why wasn’t the Mom allowed to talk to her own mother for 50 years?

She also caught them at a time they were becoming more independent. Once Mukunda escaped, the kids were allowed more excursions outside. No longer in seclusion, they go to a movie, Coney Island, and an apple orchard.

Such an unusual existence is hard to fathom. The psychological damage of being a shut-in isn’t really addressed, and what long-term effects there are remain to be seen.

The director’s rookie mistakes are obvious. She could have been sharper and tighter in focus. She doesn’t identify the boys by name that often, which is confusing, and the film sometimes suffers from low-light and grainy shots.

It’s easy to dismiss the family as a freak show, but she wanted to show us their humanity.

Like a train wreck similar to such eye-opening disasters as “Honey Boo-Boo,” “Being Bobby Brown,” “The Real Housewives” franchise and other sordid reality TV, we are fascinated.

But once we look away, what do we come away with, after experiencing the boys’ yearning, and desire for normalcy? How can they go from captivity to red-carpet celebrity?

A definite follow-up is needed.

3 stars out of 3

Director: Crystal Moselle

Rated: R for language

Length: 1:20