Last time Crystal Moselle ventured into a Lower East Side apartment and emerged with a documentary that showed at the Tribeca Film Festival, she was documenting a Warhol superstar as the cinematographer and co-producer of Excavating Taylor Mead. The subjects of her latest Festival pick, The Wolfpack, are equally if not more eccentric, but you’ve almost certainly never heard of them. Even if you live in their building, you’ve probably never laid eyes on them. That’s because, until recently, the seven children of the Angulo family were almost never allowed to leave their apartment. Their friendless, cloistered lives were akin to Kimmy Schmidt’s time in the bunker, except their bunker happens to be inside of a housing project overlooking Delancey Street.
Like the Indiana mole women, the Angulo siblings (all but one of whom are boys) cope with their extreme isolation by play acting. A la Be Kind, Rewind, they create brilliant makeshift costumes out of cereal boxes and yoga mats in order to recreate scenes from beloved movies like The Dark Knight and Halloween(violent films that, ironically enough, their overly protective father introduced them to). The film kicks off with their version of Reservoir Dogs; even when they take off their matching outfits, the siblings look unsettling similar (two of them are actually twins), with severe, swarthy features and long hair that flows down their backs. One can see why Moselle was so struck by their appearance when she saw them walking through the East Village on what happened to be one of their few appearances in the outside world. She chased after them and ended up filming them for a short film featuring readings by downtown denizens like Natasha Lyonne and Chloe Sevigny. After winning a Grand Jury prize at Sundance, the feature-length documentary, which boasts David Cross as an executive producer, premieres at Tribeca this Saturday.
The Angulo kids are ruled not by a reverend, but by their controlling father, who was following the Hare Krishna tradition when he fruitfully multiplied and gave his brood Sanskrit names. But Oscar isn’t a religious freak — the Peruvian was an anti-establishment AC/DC fan with dreams of rock stardom when he met his wife, a midwestern hippie, while she was traveling the Inca trail. The two wanted to move to the civilized land of Scandinavia, but ended up trying (unsuccessfully) to make some money in New York, a city they distrust so much that they homeschooled their children in order to shelter them from nefarious street types.
Those who think of today’s Lower East Side as a playground of hoity-toity galleries and vegan tasting menus may smirk when Oscar’s wife, Susanne, says, “The neighborhood we live in is not that great, and so we’ve kind of kept our distance from the people who live here.” But when Oscar recounts drug dealers in the elevator and murders nearby, it’s easy to see why he considers life in the high-rise Seward Park Extension housing complex a sort of jail of his own, and it’s easy to sympathize with him when, in one of his rare moments on camera, he says he wanted his children to “be more free, not to be contaminated by drugs, by a philosophy or tradition but to learn who they are or what they are.”
But his drinking and temper eventually drove one of his children to defy him; in 2010, at the age of 15, Mukunda slipped out of the house and roamed the streets wearing a Michael Meyers mask so that his father wouldn’t recognize him. He was picked up by the police and briefly hospitalized. (“I felt like I was Michael [Meyers] at that time,” Mukunda says of the incident, revealing just how central movies are to his mindset.)
A few months later, emboldened by their brother’s escape, the boys started going out together in a pack; it’s here where Moselle started her four and a half years of filming, catching their first subway ride, a trip to Coney Island, and their first time at a movie theater. She helps them get computer access and they eventually learn the word “Google,” along with some street lingo that can’t be printed here. It’s essentially their Rumspringa, making this a sort of Devil’s Playground set on the Lower East Side.
The Wolfpack is an absolute must-watch. Even the most jaded New Yorkers will get caught up in the Angulos’ excitement about coming into their own on the streets of New York, and their lingering fear about whether they’ll be able to fit in after so many years of isolation.