Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Hot doc: Crystal Moselle's THE WOLFPACK and its film-educated, home-schooled family of men

Do audiences seek out documentary films without first knowing the theme and/or subject involved? I would doubt it. Narrative movies can pull in a crowd by virtue of their stars, their popular genres and more often simply via their much larger budgets -- which allow for mammoth advertising. With their usual miniscule budgets, docs must rely upon at least some advance word-of-mouth via film festivals and the ensuing publicity these can bring.  So it is with THE WOLFPACK, the new documentary from first-time filmmaker Crystal Moselle, which won the Grand Jury Prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival and was nominated for top awards at three other fests.

Ms Moselle, shown at right, tackles the subject of a particular New York City family, living at the time of the filming on the Lower East Side and made up of six male adolescents, ranging in age when filming began from eleven through eighteen, and their one sister, of whom we see very little, and who seems to be maybe handicapped. Ruled by their Peruvian emigrant father's somewhat iron hand, home-schooled by their midwestern American mom, and confined for almost their entire life to the four-bedroom apartment in which they grew up (they were supposedly allowed outside only briefly and sometimes but once per year), their entire cultural life appears to have been built and groomed via the many, many movies they were allowed to watch and re-watch on videotape and DVD over the years.

Their story has now been told in various places (newspaper and magazine articles), though it is likely to reach its largest audience via this new documentary. The idea of young men raised only by two parents and a library full of films -- and what has become of them, how and why -- would seem near-irresistible for anybody who loves movies and thinks that film offers some meaning and importance to our lives. Ms Moselle has stated her first encounter with the boys was pure serendipity: She was walking down First Avenue in Manhattan in the spring of 2010 when one boy, dressed in a black suit, sporting dark glasses and weaving through the crowd, ran past her -- followed by another and another and another. Her instincts took over, she says, and she simply had to run after them. From that meeting, this movie -- finally finished five years later -- was born.

Viewed from any perspective whatsoever, the story would seem to be a major keeper. So how is the documentary that Ms Moselle has made from it? Interesting, that's for sure. It raises every bit as many questions as it answers, given Ms Moselle's decision to to film it with almost no exposition about the family or how her film came into being. She simply sits us smack in the middle of things and lets her young men do the talking and showing. There seem to be none of those "re-creations" so favored these days by some of our documentarians. And because Moselle seems to have been taken in and accepted as part of the family, she does little of the usual talking-head-interview type of thing. Instead she catches her subjects on the fly, as it were, mostly inside their apartment, but occasionally, as above with a day at the beach, outside of it.

We learn some of the boys' favorite films (Reservoir Dogs, The Godfather and The Dark Knight lead the list) and we watch them stage their own re-creations (above, below, and in the penultimate shot -- the last of which I don't believe was included in the film itself) from the movies they love. Yet we learn almost nothing about what movies have meant to the kids in terms of life lessons, ideas, culture, morality, and the like. What does their preference for movies that are heavily violent say about anything? Is this simply machismo coming to the surface, their father's choice of films, or what?  The boys certainly seem well-spoken and intelligent, but Moselle prefers to not engage them in any philosophical or deeper way. She prefers to simply watch and listen.

We see and hear the boys' mother (below, in a publicity shot, surrounded by her brood; sorry, I could find no photo of their dad) and thus learn something of the family's history. There appears to have been some abusive behavior going on, but perhaps nothing so horrible that it could not be worked out or around. We finally, after maybe half the film, view the father, who seems uncomfortable around the camera, perhaps from residual guilt, or maybe from the same fear he has always had of the manner in which New York City treats its immigrants and anyone who can be construed as "the other" -- a fear that initially led to his keeping his children always in the home.

The boys themselves seem to have matured into pretty "decent" guys. We get some sense of differentiation between them, though not nearly enough, by the time the movie ends (it lasts only 84 minutes). I do wish Moselle had better identified each young man during the end credits, when she introduces them by name and sight, yet often with their face obscured by some costume or mask. Her decision to let the family speak for itself and to leave herself, as filmmaker, mostly out of the picture was certainly brave -- as well as wise in some respects, if disappointing in others.

To have told it all would have no doubt meant making a three- or four- (or more) hour movie. Yet the one that has emerged, even at less than an hour-and-a-half, seems at times attenuated and repetitive. My feeling is that Moselle's decision as to what to include and what to leave out could have benefited from some different choices. As it is, this documentary, which certainly could have been better, is still unmissable for folk who enjoy the genre, believe in the power of movies to affect us, and care to get at least some sense of how autonomous lives can be formed -- even under pretty trying and unusual circumstances.

The Wolfpack, from Magnolia Pictures, opens this Friday, June 12, in New York City at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center and the Landmark Sunshine Cinema, and in Toronto at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema. In the weeks to come, it will play many more cities across the country. Click here to see all currently scheduled playdates.

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