Captive in Manhattan

The subject matter of Crystal Moselle’s new documentary The Wolfpack sounds like the premise for some creepy, postmodern young-adult novel: In Manhattan’s Lower East Side, the seven Angulo siblings — six teenaged brothers and a sister, with names like Govinda, Bhagavan and Krsna — have been raised in almost total confinement, held captive in a subsidized apartment by their paranoid-mystic father and dazed, abused mother.

But no, this is not fiction; it’s real life — sort of. Right off the bat, Moselle drops the audience into the Angulo apartment, where the six boys are avidly recreating key scenes from Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs. Turns out that these kids, sequestered from the big world right outside their locked door, are in the habit of recreating scenes from the movies they watch obsessively.

From here, the documentary pieces together the story: How mom, a Midwestern farm girl, met charismatic dad, a Latin American wanderer with the spiritual acumen of Jim Jones and the paterfamilias lust of Daddy Duggar. From his children, he created his own little society, a cult hermetically sealed against cosmopolitan evil, and yet situated in the middle of New York.

One of the kids compares his dad to a landowner and the rest of the family as serfs, before he lands on a better analogy — that of imprisonment. “We were frightened kids,” another brother says. “I was always up in my head.” At one point, Mukunda — the de facto leader and the first to escape outside — says this, regarding the siblings’ lifelong confinement: “The only thing we could do about it was get through it and not break.”

These are terrifying pronouncements on a severely pathological situation, and the director, admirably or not, takes everything at face value, providing no voice-overs or other framing devices. We know nothing about how she gained access to this family; she’s just there, absorbing intimate and disturbing interviews before moving on to the next.

Although instances of abuse, both physical and psychological, are not exactly glossed over, they are given short shrift in terms of the grander narrative. At one point, one of the kids, talking about hearing his mom get slapped by dad, says, “If you’re living in that kind of situation, you’re going to get it, too.”

And that grander narrative is what makes this documentary, ultimately, a failure, though one well worth watching. Quantum physics tells us that the act of observing inherently affects that which is observed, yet Moselle seems conveniently to glide over this complication. As the kids venture out into the world, with the cameras rolling, the tone is liberating, almost triumphant — completely ignoring the fact that, not only does healing proceed more slowly, but dad is still there, lurking on the periphery.

The Wolfpack opens Friday, June 26, at Bijou Metro;

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