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20 August 2015updated 14 Sep 2021 3:09pm

The Wolfpack shows how cinema can transform, or even become a substitute for, life

No film was ever in greater need of a Louis Theroux figure poking and prodding and shedding light where none would otherwise fall.

By Ryan Gilbey

The Wolfpack (15)
dir: Crystal Moselle

The opening scene of The Wolfpack could pass for any one of the DIY movie remakes that litter YouTube. In a dingy apartment, young men in shades, black suits and white shirts are brandishing guns. Slowly you get that particular sinking feeling that occurs only when someone quotes a Quentin Tarantino film within earshot. Sliced-earshot, that is: yes, they’re acting out scenes from Reservoir Dogs.

But let’s not rush to judgement. These are the six Angulo brothers, raised in New York in a Lower East Side apartment that has served as their prison as well as their home. A dominant, fearful father has severely restricted their access to the outside world. (His warped ideas extend to staging a rebellion against the government by refusing to work.) Home-schooled by their mother, who met their father in Peru before they settled in New York to raise their own tribe of children with Sanskrit names, they have had one continuous point of access to the rest of civilisation: films. They watch them repeatedly, then perform them in full costume. The result is rather like Be Kind Rewind meets Nell.

These gentle, watchful brothers talk freely in front of the camera. They painstakingly transcribe movie scripts by hand and stage an indoor Hallowe’en parade, half sweet and half sinister. It was Hallowe’en, or rather Halloween, that was partly the catalyst for an event that altered the family dynamic for ever. One day one of the brothers, Mukunda, 15 at the time, slipped out of the front door wearing the blank white mask of the film’s psychopath, Michael Myers. He didn’t get far before the police picked him up and he was not returned to his parents until a therapist had been assigned to him. But now his brothers wanted the freedom he had tasted.

It was during their first week in the outside world that the boys encountered the director Crystal Moselle. Not that you would know it from watching The Wolfpack – she mostly leaves herself out of the film, an ellipsis that transpires to be an error. Mystery is not always desirable in a documentary. Carefully apportioned (as in Capturing the Friedmans or The Imposter), it can be alluring. Too much of it, and what isn’t shown starts to obscure what is.

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The brothers have an effortless charisma and any time spent in their company cannot help but be fascinating. Their permanent grins get reflexively bigger when they’re grappling with anger towards their father, or recounting the memory of hearing him beat their mother. (She appears frequently in the film, quick to laugh but twitchier and more institutionalised than her children.) No film, though, was ever in greater need of a Louis Theroux figure poking and prodding and shedding light where none would otherwise fall. He certainly wouldn’t have let the lurking, evasive patriarch off the hook so easily.

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To find answers to our questions (why, for instance, are they called the Wolfpack?), we would need to read the accompanying newspaper interviews. It is here we discover that their younger sister, glimpsed only briefly, is mentally disabled; that the neighbours never knew they even existed. And it is also in interviews that we appreciate the breadth of the boys’ cinematic tastes: they know the French New Wave, the cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, Hitchcock’s Frenzy. With the exception of the glorious moment when they clap eyes on the sand at Coney Island and cry, “Lawrence of Arabia!” the documentary would have us take them for Comic-Con fanboys, making Dark Knight costumes out of cereal packets and yoga mats or raving about The Lord of the Rings.

The Wolfpack is good at showing how cinema can transform life, even becoming a substitute for it. (There’s more soul in the shot of Mukunda in his Batman get-up, staring pensively from the apartment window at Manhattan laid out below him, than in the entire Dark Knight trilogy.) But the film isn’t in itself a great advertisement for movie-making; Moselle is so incurious that it feels as though she was raised in that apartment along with the Angulos.

And don’t get me started on the promotional hoopla. Go to the film’s website, where there are videos of the brothers “doing” The Grand Budapest Hotel, or meeting Robert De Niro, and you’ll be tempted to feel that they have simply swapped one kind of incarceration for another.