The Wolfpack (2015) has a documentary pitch to make film buffs swoon – a group of brothers are essentially locked away by their father in a New York apartment, with only a massive movie collection to expose them to the outside world. Sounds like some whimsical documentary fun right… not exactly.
At its heart this is an absurd story, but also a very sad and confronting one. And director Crystal Moselle does not shy away from those confronting aspects. The film focuses on six brothers, who for a vast majority of their lives have been kept inside their New York apartment only allowed out a handful of times a year, if at all. There are moments that highlight the power of cinema, one brother remarks on cinema that “it makes me feel like I’m living… magical.” But the film refuses to be twee on that front. Rather than craft a trite narrative about the transformative power of the medium we all love so much, The Wolfpack shows that even that cannot overcome the brutal experience of being trapped in a controlling situation of domestic control. This is less real-life Be Kind Rewind (2008), more story of horrific domestic abuse and overwhelming control. The experience of these young men (and their barely mentioned special needs sister) is quite confronting, ruled by an iron-fisted, most likely mentally ill, patriarch. By the time the film is made, the boys have come to regard their father with contempt, repeatedly expressing their incisively negative viewpoint of him. Though their mother is still pretty enamoured with him and this contrasting of attitudes functions as a comment on domestic abuse to be pondered by the viewer. As does the impact this upbringing has had on the brothers, as they attempt to reach out into the world, but are hamstrung by their past. One of them eloquently expresses the universal fear of being so ignorant of aspects of the world that he will not be able to handle it. It’s universal, but obviously of much greater concern for him than most of us.
However for all its positive qualities in terms of theme, The Wolfpack is a bit of a mess really. There is a struggle to lay out the narrative of the film at all clearly. Perhaps caught in two minds between the crowd-pleasing positive impacts that a love of film has given these brothers, with the reality of their situation, it does not entirely succeed at delivering either coherently. Surprisingly I found the power of cinema focused aspects to be the least interesting, with the more troubling domestic aspects being much more interesting. It is a little frustrating to see interesting roads the film could have taken hinted out but then not taken – the mother’s story is the most interesting but not a focus and the connection between the movies the boys watch and the course of their life could have also been expanded upon.
Verdict: The Wolfpack is a different film to what the synopsis would suggest, both more confronting and less assured than anticipated. Unfortunately, though there is a lot of power captured in this film, it is not captured in a clean, clear way. Stubby of Reschs