Documentarian Crystal Moselle almost literally stumbled upon the subject of her documentary “The Wolfpack.” According to interviews, she saw a group of oddly dressed teenagers chasing each other in and out of the foot traffic of Manhattan, and ran after them to find out who they were and what they were up to. Their answer resulted in one of the most intriguing and astonishing documentaries I have ever seen.
Moselle intentionally makes it difficult for us to tell the brothers apart; there are six of them, they all have long hair down to their waist and Sanskrit names (Bhagavan, Govinda, Narayana, Mukunda, Krsna and Jagadisa.) We relate to them as a pack, and they seem perfectly comfortable speaking for each other. That makes sense, because they have never known anyone else; their father only lets them leave the tiny apartment a couple of times a year, and even then, they’re not allowed to talk to anyone.
Given that setup, their lives don’t seem as miserable as you might expect. They are bright and creative and articulate, and they spend most of their time re-creating the movies that they love. (It’s a strange incongruence that he shields them from other people, and yet feeds them uber-violent movies like Reservoir Dogs and The Dark Knight. The result is that they probably think the world is worse than it actually is; maybe that was the point.) They have a real talent for making just about anything, out of cereal boxes and yoga mats, and it’s really fun to watch these re-creations. One one level, this is a film about the joy of filmmaking, and the ways that movies can be a welcome release from the mundane circumstances of our everyday lives. That’s true for all of us, I think.
There are no outside voices in “The Wolfpack.” The entire documentary is made up of Moselle’s interviews of the boys (and their parents — the ever-present father finally becomes actually present late in the film,) interlaced with their own home video footage, of their movies as well as your typical holiday videos and some surprisingly intimate family moments. We never hear from an outside expert on child development, or even a neighbor. Those kinds of things might have made this a more well-rounded film, but I didn’t miss them. What we have is an affectionate, intimate, and very unique portrait of a family.
Moselle met the boys after they had pushed against their father’s rules and control, and found, to their surprise, very little resistance. But she is able to structure the documentary so that it feels like we are experiencing their coming of age as it happens; we see them looking nervously over their shoulders at the beginning, we witness awkward forays into the outside world (they seem surprised that everyone on Coney Island doesn’t dress and talk like the Reservoir Dogs cast) and, towards the end, the ways they are able to strike out on their own without burning bridges with their family, even their father. There are moments where “The Wolf Pack” transcends its particular and peculiar circumstances and becomes something more universal: a movie about teenage sons and the ways they seek to define themselves in relationship to their father, whose presence looms large over everything they know about masculinity and authority. They see all the ways they are different from him, but we can’t help but see all the ways they are just alike.