The Wolfpack

The Wolfpack is an extraordinary documentary about a seven siblings (six boys and one girl) whose view of the world is dramatically skewed by their unusual upbringing. When we first meet the Angulo family, most of the kids are young adults (the youngest is sixteen, the oldest is twenty-four)... but they've only just begun to taste independence. Many years ago, their father Oscar decided that he didn't like the New York neighborhood he lived in, and he didn't want his kids to be exposed to it - so, he decided to homeschool them and restrict them from leaving the apartment. At Oscar's command, they remained indoors for fourteen years before working up the nerve to defy him and start exploring the outside world. Oscar's wife Suzanne doesn't entirely agree with that philosophy, but she's a submissive woman who does whatever her husband tells her to do. As a result of their imprisonment, the kids only have one hobby: watching movies.

To be completely honest, the kids do more than merely watch movies. They absorb them, memorizing every line of their favorite films, transcribing the dialogue by hand and staging their own no-budget recreations of the movies (the film opens with a particularly energetic montage of scenes from Reservoir Dogs, including a version of the “ear scene” in which the kid playing the Michael Madsen character sings “Stuck in the Middle with You” between his lines). The commitment they show to this hobby is a little astonishing – just wait until you see the Batman costume they make out of yoga mats and cereal boxes. As a group, they've developed a definitive ranked list of the greatest films of all time (the first two Godfather films are tied for the #1 slot), though they have certain individual preferences. They don't assume that movies are showing them what the outside world is like, but they know that movies are giving them a chance to get away from the world they've been trapped in.

This is a testament to the transporting power of cinema, but it's abundantly clear to any rational human being that movies are no substitute for actually getting to experience life. When the kids take an oh-so-rare venture outdoors, they marvel at the little things most of us take for granted – the grass, the trees, the water. It's a delight to see the world through their eyes, but it's also heartbreaking, because we see just how much they've been missing. Naturally, one of the outings is a trip to the movie theatre, where they watch The Fighter on the big screen. “That money is actually going to Christian Bale directly!” one kid gasps excitedly. “That's amazing! I played him in our version of The Dark Knight!”

This is a strange situation, but The Wolfpack offers an invaluable glimpse into something that is far more common than many people realize. Homeschooling can certainly be a healthy and positive option under the right circumstances, but there are those who use it for isolationist reasons, “protecting” kids from the world to such an extreme degree that those kids are near-incapable of functioning normally once they're required to go out and be on their own. The Angulo kids freely admit that they've only recently become comfortable with the idea of talking to strangers – and none of the guys feel even remotely comfortable with the idea of asking someone out on a date. Admittedly, this is a more extreme situation than most, and certain aspects of it are unique: it's common to hear about this sort of thing in the realm of Christianity and Mormonism, but Oscar's belief system is a peculiar blend of Hare Krishna and Scandinavian utopianism. His willingness to let his kids watch whatever they want is also a surprising wrinkle – even the most open-minded parents would surely be a little hesitant about letting youngsters watch something like Blue Velvet.

The only frustrating thing about The Wolfpack is that it doesn't take the time to fully address some of the underlying issues at the heart of this situation. Visnu, the lone daughter, is mentally handicapped, and it seems more than a little possible that Oscar may be suffering from some form of mental illness. However, that's a topic the movie seems uncomfortable with tackling (a misguided attempt at tactfulness, perhaps), so neither Oscar nor Visnu spends much time in the spotlight. Still, such failings seem trivial in contrast to what the movie achieves.

The film's most most tragic figure is Suzanne, who has no explanation for why she's permitted Oscar to do the things he's done. She doesn't want to talk about it, though it's more than obvious that she has regrets. In one of the film's most affecting scenes, she calls her mother – who she hasn't spoken to in decades, seemingly at Oscar's request – and pours her heart out. How could she surrender so many years of her life to this nightmare so willingly? The film doesn't have the answers, but she is hardly alone in the world.

For all of its dark and depressing elements, The Wolfpack also has a curious streak of optimism. In fact, it's often an immensely entertaining film. These youngsters are likely facing years and years of therapy, but they genuinely love each other, and their passion for movies has a joyful, infectious quality. That passion also inspired them to make an abundance of home movies, which offer a remarkable, objective document of many of the things they've endured. It's touching to see them find joy in spite of everything, but saddening to see just how much has been stolen from them. Many kids have been broken by less, but the Angulo kids seem to have found an extraordinary coping mechanism. With all my heart, I hope they're going to be okay. Thanks to movies, they just might be.

The Wolfpack

Rating: ★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 90 minutes
Release Year: 2015