Tuesday, 8 December 2015

The Wolfpack (2015) - Movie Review

Whenever I get asked exactly why I dedicate as much time to these reviews as I do, I basically break it down to a feeling of obligation. Not only am I giving back to a critical community that helped make me the person I am today, I am also giving back to an art form that has shaped a surprising amount of my personality. My sense of humour, my views of religion, politics, the news, society as a whole, even the way I interact socially with others; I can pinpoint every film where those sensibilities came from for me. It is primarily for this reason that I promote the idea of subjectivity in this field of expertise, because films can affect people in ways that aren’t exactly quantifiable. When I sat down to watch Schumacher’s Falling Down for the first time not that long ago, no one would be able to predict that it would forever change how I look at real-world news stories. Of course, that’s not to say that being babysat by Uncle TV is ideal for the entirety of a child’s upbringing. We are still humans that require interaction with other humans without a screen between them. To illustrate both of these points about how much cinema can teach and questions about how much it should teach, we have today’s subject; easily one of the most intriguing documentaries I’ve come across.

The plot: In the Lower East Side of New York City lives the Angulo family, made up of the mother, father, six brothers and their sister. For the majority of their lives, the siblings weren’t allowed outside of their apartment, under the rules of their Hare Krishna-following father. The only information they knew about the outside world came from the family’s sizeable film collection: If they aren’t watching movies, they’re re-enacting them for their own entertainment. However, all of that changes when the eldest sibling Mukunda breaks out of their home and experiences that outside world first-hand.

Right off the bat, the subject matter is absolutely astonishing… although it does bring up certain questions considering exactly how isolated the siblings are. Not to say that there aren’t answers for such questions, namely how they were discovered in the first place; it’s that they aren’t explained in the film proper. Under normal circumstances, this honestly wouldn’t be that big a problem, but when dealing with something this isolated, that question needs to be brought up. When I looked at Citizenfour earlier in the year, if Laura Poitras didn’t explain in-film that Snowden contacted her directly and that’s how the documentary came about, it wouldn’t have made as much sense that the footage was obtained to begin with. However, even with that in mind, this is an enthralling watch solely on the basis of its subject matter. Even if you don’t spend far too much alone watching films and not enough socialising (*cough*), their hesitance when it comes to the new social opportunities the outside world offers should still be familiar to most audiences; it’s like Adolescence 2.0.

As we learn more about the brothers, their living conditions and their love for cinema, the film takes on both a quasi-mystical and tragic tone. We see their passion for the art form, their re-enactments of The Dark Knight and Reservoir Dogs and, honestly, it’s pretty cool to watch. It’d be pretty hard to argue that people don’t learn an awful lot early on from the films and TV shows they watch, even on a subconscious level. Also, it kind of appeals to my inner geek seeing how much respect these guys have for Tarantino, Nolan and David O. Russell. Where it gets tragic, and more than a little frightening, is when it gets into the hows and whys of their living conditions. In no uncertain terms, it’s almost like a film cult, given the want of their parents to keep the children away from ‘outside influence’ and how they learnt most of what they know from movies. Even with how funny it initially is seeing them all dressed up and dancing to This Is Halloween, I’d be lying if I said it didn’t become harrowing when put into the context of their upbringing.

This is the work of not only a first-time documentary maker but first-time filmmaker full stop, and it shows. I still maintain that documentaries work best the less polished they look, which is definitely needed here given the surreality of the premise, but at times the camera work can stretch even that justification. There are times when it is used to great effect, like the overexposed lighting when re-enacting Mukunda’s first time outside, but elsewhere it just features a lot of out-of-focus shots and wonky framing. Not to say that this looks terrible, as it looks reasonable enough under the circumstances; just that this would probably end up on the lower end of the spectrum in terms of ghetto documentary creation.

There’s also the matter of, alongside not establishing the real-world connection between director and subject, not really having much of an arc. It has a definite naturalistic approach where it only shows what is given without any real exaggeration (far as can be told, at any rate), but there isn’t any real path that the events we see end up taking. The closest we get to a mile marker is the revelation that these brothers are now spending more time in the outdoors, but otherwise we are just seeing things happen. Apart from Crystal’s contributions, the homemade renditions of the titular Wolfpack’s favourite movies is very entertaining. In fact, it kind of brings up weird questions in terms of who is able to act better: Professionals who ‘apparently’ spent years learning the craft, or these siblings who learnt everything as they went along. As someone who has no formal training in film theory, yet continually pretends to know what he’s talking about, it was an interesting idea to see.

All in all, even considering the amateurish production values and the numerous hanging questions the film raises, this is still an incredible look at a true stranger-than-fiction story. It is at once heart-warming, enlightening, tragic and disturbing, sometimes all at once, creating a cinematic experience that perfectly encapsulates the different sensations that probably influenced the Angulos into their own fandoms.

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