The Wolfpack


Tougher than the rest.

Tougher than the rest.

(2015) Documentary (Magnolia) Bhagavan Angulo, Govinda Angulo, Jagadisa Angulo, Krisna Angulo, Mukunda Angulo, Naryana Angulo, Visnu Angulo, Oscar Angulo, Susanne Angulo. Directed by Crystal Moselle

Sometimes we all want to shut the world out. Just let it go on doing what it does outside the safety and security of our homes; we just need a little break. What would you do, though, if you were forced to live that way – isolated from the world, limited in contact to a few outings a year and from what you see from movies?

That’s just how the seven kids of the Angulo family were raised. In a government housing complex in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Oscar and Susanne Angulo chose to keep their children inside the apartment day in and day out, refusing to allow them to venture outdoors other than on special occasions. Sometimes the boys get to leave their apartment three or four times a year; some years, they don’t make it out at all. Oscar, a Peruvian Hare Krishna, was unrealistically paranoid about the outside world and wanted to protect his children from it. His wife went along, at first because she too was concerned but later because she was intimidated by her husband.

That leaves the boys to figure things out on their own. Against all odds, they turn out to be articulate, congenial and intelligent boys, much of which is a testament to the homeschooling they received from their mom. All of them have been given names from Sanskrit legends and mythology and none of them have been allowed to cut their hair when we first meet them, their locks cascading down to their waists. They have the distinctive Andean features of their father, but none of them seem disposed to like him very much.

And with good reason; he’s not really a likable guy. For much of the movie he sits in his room, isolating himself from his family and only coming out on occasion, rarely seeing much of the family initially. He’s often compared to a jailer and the home to a prison which seems accurate enough. Somewhat unbelievably, as part of his world view, he refuses to work because doing so plays into the hands of the industrialist elite, so he and his seven children live off of government aid programs and the stipend they get for Susanne’s homeschooling.

Yet they have a library of (they claim) 5,000 films on VHS and DVD which I suspect is an exaggeration; I didn’t see any sort of storage in the small four-bedroom apartment that would begin to hold that many films. Moselle chooses not to delve into harder questions about how the family subsists; this isn’t that kind of documentary.

What is obvious is that the boys (and their mom, who’s as much a victim as they are) love each other fiercely and look out for each other. When Mukunda, then 15, starts venturing out on his own without permission, it begins a chain of events in the household as the boys start to question the wisdom of their father’s decisions and stand up to his edicts. By the end of the film, Mukunda has moved out, the others have also started going out on their own and one has even found himself a girlfriend. In short, they’re acting like adolescent boys moving into manhood and even Oscar seems disposed to letting nature take its course.

This is a story that is likely to keep the audience engaged throughout; the boys are terrific subjects and while one is prone to continue asking oneself “How could this happen?” Unfortunately, the filmmakers sabotage their own story in the editing process. The interviews by the filmmakers are interwoven with home video from the family; for recreation, the boys recreate their favorite movies on video, allowing them to enter the worlds that the movies have created for them, so with home-made props they make startlingly clever and inventive recreations and at the film’s end, an original movie of their own.

The problem is that there is no context here; we just get the family’s viewpoint and really don’t get anything else to support or oppose it. We are told that some of the boys are seeing therapists; we don’t get an interview with any sort of expert to talk about what sorts of issues the boys could be facing. That kind of testimony would have only augmented the film.

Not only that and even more egregiously, the interviews bounce around in time; we are never really sure when in the process the interviews are taking place and only near the end when some of the boys defiantly get their hair cut do we realize we are looking at more recent footage. It’s frustrating for the viewer in that a story that should be fairly linear jumps around; there are references to somewhat important events but only one (an incident in which the police broke down the door on suspicion that there were weapons in the apartment when it was just the boys making a movie that involved prop guns) is ever explained or discussed.

The Angulo boys (their sister is developmentally disabled) are slowly integrating themselves into the world and reportedly five of the six are no longer on speaking terms with their father. We don’t hear much from Oscar, other than a kind of half-handed shrug that he made a few mistakes. There are intimations that he is alcoholic and physically abusive, although nothing is really discussed overtly; the boys refer to it, but there is no follow-up.

The movie is meant to be inspiring and it is. We see the boys on a trip to a rural apple orchard and pumpkin patch and their wonder at seeing the countryside firsthand is joyful. We also see the dynamics have changed within the family; Oscar is walking hand in hand with Visnu and Susanne who want to see what her boys are up to. Oscar isn’t interested; finally Susanne breaks her hands free of Oscar and walks alone to find her boys, which she does. Visnu and Oscar are alone.

This is an interesting documentary that could have been a powerful, important documentary with some judicious editing and a little more focus. Moselle didn’t really delve into the more difficult subjects having to do with the imprisonment; how did child protective services not intervene on this case? And quite frankly, it’s likely they did and found that the children were well adjusted and normal in every respect, but with their own peculiar and creative view of the world outside their walls and concluded there was no need to change anything but we are left only with speculation. I can recommend it, but not as much as I would have liked to.

REASONS TO GO: An amazing story. The brothers are engaging, creative and charismatic.
REASONS TO STAY: Poorly edited. Lacks context.
FAMILY VALUES: Some foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Moselle met Mukunda on one of his unauthorized jaunts outside and persuaded the family to let her have access so she could tell their story.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/11/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 84% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: I’m Dancing As Fast As I Can
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Cub

Fanny, Annie and Danny


Fanny, Annie and Danny

Jill Pixley and Jonathan Leveck ponder the joys of family gatherings.

(2010) Dramedy (Self-Released) Jill Pixley, Carlye Pollack, Jonathan Leveck, Colette Keen, George Killingsworth, Nick Frangione, Anne Darragh, Suzanna Aguayo, Nancy Carlin, Don Schwantz. Directed by Chris Brown

To utilize a bit of a Dickensian mash-up, Christmas can be the best of times and the worst of times. Family get-togethers can be lovely and heart-warming – depending on the family. Some families should never get within a thousand miles of each other.

Fanny (Pixley) is a developmentally challenged woman living in a group home. She works for a candy factory and is obsessive-compulsive about washing her hands. She also practices her recorder at six in the morning, which really annoys her fellow residents in the home. She mostly keeps to herself, losing herself in her beloved horse books.

Annie (Pollack) is in the midst of planning her wedding, 18 months hence, to Todd (Frangione), a good-hearted stoner who has yet to find a job that isn’t beneath him. Annie is a bit of a Bridezilla, obsessing over details of her wedding to the point where a little valium might not be such a bad idea. However, any suggestions in that arena would most likely be met with shrill disapproval. She works as a dental assistant for Dr. Bob (Schwantz), whom she makes uncomfortable not only for her attempts to manage things she shouldn’t be managing but also for her perhaps inappropriate affections.

Danny (Leveck) is a successful band manager who makes a little extra by skimming off of his fledgling bands. When the accountant mom of one of them discovers his chicanery and proclaims he owes the band twenty grand, he flees Los Angeles for a family gathering at Christmas, one he has studiously refused to attend for years.

Edie (Keen) is the reason why Danny has stayed away. Overbearing, abusive and controlling, Danny (whom she calls “Dan-Dan”) is the apple of her eye; her other children (particularly Fanny) and her husband are merely worms in the apple. She screams at her family in a voice undoubtedly roughened by years of smoking, drinking and screaming at her kids. For Edie, her way is the only way – any other suggestions to the contrary can be shoved with all due haste where sunlight can’t be found.

Ronnie (Killingsworth) is a Vietnam vet who sometimes likes to look through his pictures of his years in the military that he keeps in a tin box in the shed. He is a bit broken, possibly afflicted with some mild dementia but remains kind-hearted despite constant bullying by his wife. Generally, he just tunes her out as much as possible.

Edie is preparing the “perfect” Christmas dinner – which is held a week before Christmas because the actual holiday itself stresses Edie out too much. Fanny’s candy factory is closing and the kindly owner (Darragh) has given Fanny a $9,000 severance check which she is supposed to deposit in the bank, but she misses her bus and arrives after the bank closes. Devastated by her loss, she goes to her sister’s house only to find Annie out. Todd instead feeds her a couple of beers (not the best idea for someone taking medication) and listens sympathetically to her story. Annie’s arrival, however, signals the end of any sympathy – Annie has a distinct lack of any compassion where her sister is concerned, possibly due to having to care for her for too long.

All this is going to come to a boil when the family arrives at the home where Edie rules. Annie will attempt to curry favor from Danny in direct competition with Edie (who doesn’t appreciate anyone coming between her and her son) and Ronnie will discover his wife’s ultimate cruelty – and Fanny will wash her hands of all of it.

This is the third feature of San Francisco Bay Area filmmaker Chris Brown, who is also an accomplished songwriter and wrote the songs for the movie (including the oddball Christmas songs that Edie forced Danny to sing with her). Incidentally if you can find his album Now That You’re Fed and particularly the song “All My Rivals,” do go for it, the music is amazing.

He also wrote the script and collects a group of characters who pass through our gaze generally undetected when we see them on the streets but once you get to know them, you find them anything but bland. In that sense, they are very realistic – think of all the people you pass by without truly seeing them. We are all visible to the naked eye yet invisible to the gaze of others. Brown captures that aspect of our society very nicely and it adds to the realism of the film.

Pixley does some amazing work as Fanny to the point where you wonder if she might not have some of the issues she’s portraying. She’s that spot-on in her performance. Frangione also does an exceptional job, taking a character that is not necessarily sympathetic early on and in a matter of a minute or two makes him so. To Brown’s credit, he doesn’t write Todd as a Cheech and Chong clone but imbues the character with a personality that is more than a guy who smokes dope. Not all stoners are all about the dope.

The movie succeeds in painting a picture that is both funny and tragic. The children are all scarred by their mother’s behavior and while at times you want to punch Edie in the face, she is also ultimately a victim of her own behavior and if you look past the ugliness, you see someone who has been bitterly disappointed by life. The movie is compelling from the opening moments to the shocking last scene. It is not always easy to watch a family implode but Brown makes it funny and sad, like seeing a car full of clowns in a head-on collision with a semi.

REASONS TO GO: No matter how bad your family dynamics are, you’ll feel better about them after seeing this family. Organic performances and a clever script.

REASONS TO STAY: Mama Edie is such a horror show that people might actually cringe.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a smattering of foul language and a bit of drug use.

HOME OR THEATER: Look for it at a festival near you.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: More from the Florida Film Festival