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No matter how many times we’re reminded that Shakespeare wrote “King Lear” in quarantine, the idea of creativity under severe physical constraints is not the most inviting concept. Crystal Moselle’s illuminating documentary “The Wolfpack” provides a sophisticated counterargument: Nobody deserves to get trapped indoors, but that same limitation can be an empowering weapon.
Five years ago, Moselle’s portrait of the six Angulo brothers — who were raised in a cramped Lower East Side apartment as their radical mystic father forced them to stay inside — played like the inside story of a failed social experiment. The Angulos only have the movies to keep them company, so they band together to make DIY versions at home. In today’s climate, their saga registers with a galvanizing new energy, as much of the world considers the pratfalls of staying indoors, and what it takes to make the most of confined spaces. The Angulos had no other other option, forging a solution that helped them solidify their bonds and chart a path forward until the rest of the world opened up to them.
At first, the angular, long-haired siblings’ homegrown filmmaking factory registers as some kind of eerie, cult-like fan worship. The “Reservoir Dogs” recreation that opens the movie is at once meticulous and surface-deep, a microbudget variation on the conceptual flaw behind Gus Van Sant’s “Psycho” remake. The Angulos excel at recreating every facet of the movies they adore, from the nuances of performance to cardboard props and wardrobe, but they seem to lack any grasp of what it all means.
From there, however, “The Wolfpack” makes it clear that the original intention of these movies matter less than the way they incite the Angulos to take some control of their surroundings. As Moselle’s camera wanders the tight interiors and provides intimate flashbacks through outdated home videos, the story of the Angulos parents puts the unusual milieu in context. The boys’ hippie mother met their father on a Macchu Piccu trip decades ago, and was entranced by his spiritual convictions, only to wind up enmeshed in a repressive and abusive lifestyle that extended to her children. No wonder movies, the ultimate escapism, appealed to them. Bhagavan, the oldest of the brood, credits their homegrown filmmaking process with providing an outlet for experiencing life in ways otherwise unavailable to them. “It makes me feel like I’m living,” he says.
At times, the Angulos’ lo-fi productions seem like therapy. That’s not always the best strategy. Their disturbing gothic recreations of “Nightmare Before Christmas” and “The Dark Knight” point to the downside of being trapped in a mindset where movies provide the only means of wrestling with complex emotions; they lack the proper language to express themselves, so they turn to the darkness they see around them, retreating further into fictional universes removed from their own experiences. It’s understandable why Mukunda, who eventually sneaks out, doesn’t see the problem with wandering the neighborhood in a Michael Myers mask until the cops pick him up.
With time and profound struggle, however, the Angulos manage to understand more about their circumstances and why the apartment doesn’t have to define their world forever. Movies allow them to explore their artistic sensibilities under dire circumstances and provide ample reason to escape them. “The Wolfpack” ultimately shows how even the most advanced level of fan worship gives way to complex aesthetic sensibilities, as Mukunda retreats from his original interests to direct his own original movie — an abstract exploration of emotional experiences fully reflective of his identity.
When “The Wolfpack” launched at Sundance and won the Grand Jury Prize in 2015, it invited immediate comparisons to “Grey Gardens” and “Capturing the Friedmans,” two intimate documentaries about family bonds tested under severe physical constraints. In different ways, both movies wallow in sad, distant lives trapped by their immediate surroundings. “The Wolfpack,” however, tracks a more inspiring survival story fully in tune with the current moment. It’s a celebration of how to endure such boundaries at all costs, while keeping a close watch on the potential of the outside world, whenever it becomes an option.
“The Wolfpack” is now streaming on Hulu.
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