It sounds like an experiment devised by a sadistic sociologist: Take six boys and raise them in a four-bedroom apartment on New York’s Lower East Side. Never let them leave the house. Feed them a steady diet of home-schooling and Hollywood action movies like “Pulp Fiction” and the “Dark Knight” films. Steep for 17 years. See what happens.
The heartbreak of “The Wolfpack,” Crystal Moselle’s fine and mysterious documentary — an award winner at Sundance this year — is that the six Angulo brothers did not grow up to be psychopaths or shut-ins. Instead, they are soft-spoken, unjaded, thoughtful, and politely but insistently rebellious about making their way into the world. The movie only looks like a coming-of-age freak show from the outside; in reality, it’s unexpected proof that flowers can grow even in a prison.
Moselle met the brothers shortly after they began to make group forays outside their housing project: She saw six tall, thin, long-haired teenagers whip by on the street one day and instinctively followed them. Their mother, Susan, was a Midwestern hippie girl, their father, Oscar, a Peruvian follower of Hare Krishna who proved to be a small-time dictator in practice, bolting his children in to protect them from the contamination of New York City and the world. Sometimes the boys went outside nine times a year — to doctor or dentist appointments — and sometimes they went once. One year, they never left the apartment at all.
The children were all given Sanskrit names (including a developmentally challenged older daughter who barely figures in the film), and one of the more frustrating aspects of “The Wolfpack” is Moselle’s avoidance of the standard (in this case helpful) screen titles to identify who’s who. Gradually we figure out that the film’s central figure — the sensitive third youngest who was the first to leave the apartment on his own — is Mukunda. It’s his learning curve, his hopes, terrors, and gathering anger at his father, that inspires the others to follow suit.
What initially forged the bond between the filmmaker and her subjects is their mutual love of movies. If Oscar kept the violent outside world at bay, he had no problem with bringing its film equivalent home, and the Angulo brothers absorbed cinema from an early age until it came out their pores: Tarantino and Christopher Nolan, “The Godfather” and “Lawrence of Arabia,” schlock and art. Then they’d rig up costumes and props to re-enact scenes from the films for their own amusement. “The Wolfpack” opens with an Angulo live-action remake of “Reservoir Dogs,” and it’s eerily inspired, a performance pitched somewhere between art, horseplay, and mimicry. The boys are natural actors, but on some level the whole show is driven by need.
The documentary’s secondary narrative concerns Susan, who is a cowed presence in the early scenes and whose courage to defy her husband grows along with her sons’. In one scene, shot by Mukunda when Moselle was away, Susan calls her own mother for the first time in decades, an emotional tipping point that reduces everyone — onscreen and off — to tears. In another, Susan and her sons take an apple-picking trip to the country, and you can feel the film and everyone in it exhale with relief.
And the father? Once the camera finally works up the nerve to confront Oscar, he doesn’t seem all that terrifying: an insecure drunk with plenty of self-justifying excuses for his behavior. Bullies and tyrants need a vacuum in which to rule, and once Mukunda walked out the door, it was as if a spell had been broken.
The film could be more tightly focused, more traditionally “explanatory,” but Moselle favors an immersive, you-are-there approach. Sometimes it works; sometimes it leaves us hanging. She’s aided by a score composed of ghostly downtown guitar squalls that only occasionally turn melodramatic.
Since “The Wolfpack” was made, the brothers’ lives have evolved. Only Govinda has moved to his own apartment, but most of the Angulos are working, many of them — surprise — in the lower echelons of the film industry. There’s a girlfriend or two, and one of the brothers has made his own short film. It casts the family members as mythical archetypes of themselves, with a part for dad as Oscar the All-Seeing. He plays along meekly, bereft of power, and then his sons head back out to their lives.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.