Fear changes how we think. The Wolfpack is a documentary about a family whose entire life is dictated by fear, not of the unknown, but of the known. A husband and wife move to the Lower East Side of New York City, start a family, and virtually end contact with the outside world because of fear. This film follows their children: seven young people who are beginning to come of age and develop their own ideas about the world because of their collective obsessive relationship with film and music.
What makes these children different is more than just that they were kept away from the world; it’s how they created their own universe. The boys re-enact films within their own home for fun. One transcribes the dialogue by hand and types it out in script format using a typewriter, and the others work on creating costumes out of anything they can find, including old yoga mats and cereal boxes. They create their own props as well, so gunfights come complete with aluminum foil replica weapons, and six-shooters with a swing out cylinder. The scenes are shot-for-shot remakes, down to blocking and even camera angles, as best as they could re-create them. We’re shown pieces from some of their favorite ones: they do Pulp Fiction, The Nightmare Before Christmas, and Reservoir Dogs to name a few. It’s incredible, because they are actually quite good. They even created a Batman costume that looks pretty legitimate.
The boys developed their love of film from their father, and he facilitates their artistry by allowing them cameras and unfiltered access to his collection of thousands of VHS tapes and DVDs. At times, the film merges their home videos and their footage so seamlessly that it takes a second to distinguish between the two. The boys are amateurs with professional eyes. This is what opens their eyes to how their father’s God complex has impacted their lives, and in turn, spurs them to make a change.
They were raised to operate as a tribe, separate from everyone and everyone they could have possibly known. They know no one outside of their family and are not permitted to leave without permission from their restrictive father. Six boys and the youngest, a girl, grow up in a cramped apartment. They are only allowed outside a few times a year, if at all. The boys wear their hair in waist-length ponytails, with the awkwardness of any teen from a normal family, except their fashion sense is based entirely off of what they see from movies. They all look the same, purposefully, almost as though they are sextuplets. The parents wear their hair short. Their father, who watches two televisions simultaneously, goes out occasionally for food and other necessities, including alcohol, and takes the door key with him. Their mother kept them sane, the children explain, and she serves as their teacher and source of human connection. They are never given the chance to socialize. The father’s first sentence in the film is demonstrative of his authoritarian nature: “My power is influencing everybody.”
The director, Crystal Moselle, might be brilliant. It’s unclear how she met the boys, but assumptions can be made in the latter part of the film that I won’t ruin for readers. She is the first guest they have ever invited into their home. It’s incredible how much life she captures through her cameras, from people whom, even a year earlier, they admit, would not have ever spoken to her. She captures their first evening out as a group. They have their first experience at a beach, Coney Island, on camera. Their parents and sister do not join them.
In many ways, the absence of the sister’s voice in the film is horrifying; presumably, she is still very much so in the prime of her childhood, and so her parents exercise caution in allowing her to be recorded. One son explains that she is special to the father. She says practically nothing the entire film, and never gets an interview. If her parents had allowed her to interview, even with them sitting by her side, I wonder what she would have to say. Her perspective is one that could have altered dramatically over the course of filming: she sees her brothers’ changing before her eyes, but still has to follow her parents every word. I wonder, and I fear for her.
Moselle refrains from verbally commenting throughout the film; she lets them come to her. They show her what they’re working on, excitedly, and seem to have not only a deep understanding of what she is doing, but also an appreciation that she is allowing them to continue to live the way that they choose. They are the ones who express discomfort with their situation, and I doubt they would continue to allow her in if she attempted to influence them in any way. Though they may be sheltered in an extreme way, their intelligence and joy for life shines through with every word and action they take. Moselle’s approach is primarily about respecting them, and that allows for the viewer to understand them, even if their formative years trained them to fear us.