Harsh Texture

The Wolfpack

The children of the Angulo family who spent their adolescence kept in isolation detail how they lived vicariously through film

There’s no shortage of families that pull themselves out of American society. In media accounts they are often cast in a positive light: keeping their children out of public schooling that’s fundamentally flawed either due to its secular nature, or to save their children from mixing with undesirables. When these families pop up on TV they tend look similar: mid-western, protestant, white, well-spoken. At this point “home schooled children” don’t draw images of urban environments, public housing, child abuse, or near-total societal isolation.

Fearful of the outside world, and eager to build his own family into an ideal society, the patriarch of the Angulo family keeps his wife and children locked in their New York apartment. It's a rough neighborhood, evident from the bars that secure every window from the ground floor to the stories above. Absent nearly all forms of social interaction, the children fall hard for cinema. Films attain a religious significance. They’re consumed heartily and then recreated through homemade props.

In the end, behind all of their eccentricities, the underlying narrative is remarkably familiar. With the brother’s open hatred of their father, and effusive love for their mother The Wolfpack plays like Oedipus Rex through the lens of Wes Anderson. There’s the monstrous father: the man who hid his children from society and abused their mother. However, by this point he’s a lion in winter. Recent footage shows that he’s much shorter than his oldest son and barely as tall as his youngest. He can’t make any credible threat of physical dominance. There doesn’t seem to have been a single incident where his sons overpowered him. Instead he shrunk away, ostracized within his own family.

Finding their father impotent, the brothers start making voyages out into New York City. Moving in a pack they carefully seek out the visceral experiences denied to them. They swim on the Coney Island beaches, and attend a theater for the first time.

Throughout their lives, the brothers were groomed similarly, letting their hair grow as long as it could. Unsurprisingly they share a common build and skin tone. Their names come after ancient deities--Govinda, Krsna, Bhagavan--each so uncommon to be otherwise unintelligible. They all seem to need the same dental work. It makes distinguishing between them a near impossible task. It’s not until the film closes, and their father’s presence diminishes to little more than a weak whisper, that they start to define their individual identities apart from the group and even away from cinema references.

One of the anthropological joys of the Wolfpack for a cinema buff is viewing the Angulo brothers as a control group for the power of film. Probably absent the effect of marketing campaigns, the Angulos still fall hard for The Dark Knight and obviously take Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction as gospel. The only surprise is to find JFK their unanimous pick for second greatest film.

If you grew up in the VHS era, you knew of a family who kept a generous collection of bootlegged films. Someone who meticulously recorded every film aired on television, and rented movies with a completist zeal to copy them all. The Angulos remind me of this, how they came to amass a collection of films is never explained. I can only imagine the father rented or bought bootlegs off the streets of New York in his excursions outside the apartment.

Published: April 1, 2018, 2:35 p.m.
Updated: April 1, 2018, 2:36 p.m.