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

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Fish Tank


Fish Tank

Kierston Wareing has unquiet slumbers.

(2009) Drama (IFC) Katie Jarvis, Michael Fassbender, Kierston Wareing, Harry Treadaway, Sarah Bayes, Rebecca Griffiths, Sydney Mary Nash, Joanna Horton, Grant Wild. Directed by Andrea Arnold

One of the more interesting debates in modern society is nature vs. nurture. How much impact does our environment play in our personality? Is it all genetically ingrained from the beginning without a whole lot of input from our surroundings – or does our personality completely depend on the where and when of our lives?

Mia Williams (Jarvis) lives in a really tough part of Essex, in government housing – an apartment complex with large full windows along the front wall, resembling a fish tank. She’s feisty, temperamental and doesn’t take crap from anybody. There are few things in her life that bring her any sort of satisfaction – hip hop dancing (which she does kind of badly and artlessly), her younger sister Tyler (Griffiths) and whatever small amounts of alcohol she can pilfer.

Her mother Joanne (Wareing) is a boozer and a bit of a slut and as unfit a mother as it is possible to be. She has brought into their home Connor (Fassbender), a handsome man who treats Mia with unexpected kindness, despite her initial misgivings and outright hostility.

He takes the family to the country and teaches Mia to fish without a pole. She begins to develop a little bit of closeness – maybe too much. She also becomes attached to a dying horse in the camp of a group of travelers – and to Billy (Treadaway), a younger member of the group who has become sweet on her.

In the meantime all her dreams, large and small, are slowly dying – and sometimes not so slowly. She seems caught in a web of frozen inertia, one from which her young life may never be extricated from.

Director Arnold caught the imagination of the British movie press with this movie, who have fallen all over themselves in praising it – not to mention the awards the movie has garnered. I have not warmed to it as much as others, but that doesn’t mean this isn’t a quality piece of filmmaking.

Part of what makes this film worth seeing is the performance by Jarvis. She had no previous acting experience and was cast after a member of the production team (some say it was Arnold herself) observed her having an argument with her boyfriend in a train station (the one that’s used in the movie in fact). Her untrained status helps make the performance. It’s raw, emotional and without guile or artifice. Mia isn’t always the most lovable or makes the best decisions, but the portrayal is absolutely realistic. She isn’t perfect which is kind of what is attractive about her.

I will have to admit that the relationship between Connor and Mia made me a little bit uncomfortable. I realize that this type of thing goes on all the time and given the personalities involved even makes a certain amount of sense. Still, it’s a bit difficult to watch.

Wareing also does an excellent job as the mom, even though she looks far too young to be the mother of a teenager. There’s a very nice scene at the very end of the movie between her and her daughters that is quite natural and if I described it to you, it would smack of old Hollywood but it feels authentic here.

This is a very well-made movie. I appreciated the performances and the craft behind the camera. While the heavy English accents made it difficult for these Yank ears to always understand what was being said, nevertheless this is a worthwhile movie to check out. It isn’t pretty – and Mia can be frustrating in her behavior, just like any teen. Still in all, for those who want to see the grittier side of the UK this makes a very good starting point.

WHY RENT THIS: Jarvis gives a raw, unvarnished performance and the movie pulls no punches looking at the working poor of England.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The accents make the dialogue difficult to follow at times. The relationship between Connor and Mia is creepy.

FAMILY VALUES: Although the film was released without a rating, there is a severe amount of foul language, some sexuality including teen sex, alcohol and drug use, and some violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was shot chronologically, and the actors not given complete scripts so they were largely unaware of what was going to happen to their characters until the week of shooting.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: This is available in a Criterion Edition which includes three short films by Andrea Arnold (including the 2003 Oscar winner Wasp) and audition footage of juvenile actresses auditioning for the role of Mia.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $2.4M on a $3M production budget; I’m thinking this probably lost a few bucks.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Priest