What Critics Get Wrong About What ‘The Wolfpack’ Gets Wrong

Last January, Crystal Moselle’s documentary The Wolfpack premiered to rave reviews at the Sundance Film Festival, winning the Grand Jury Prize for U.S. Documentary and a distribution deal from Magnolia Pictures. It was pegged for a June 12 release, concurrent (coincidentally enough) with Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, which won both the Jury and Audience Awards at Sundance for Dramatic films. Such kudos raise the profiles of such small movies; they also make them targets. In the case of The Wolfpack, the original ecstatic reviews have given way to thinkpieces and objections; after all, why bother discussing the mood and power of a documentary when you can get hung up on its “compelling questions”?

That phrase comes from the sub-hed of Salon’s inquiry into the film, which is a fly-on-the-wall portrait of the Angulo brothers, a group of home-schooled teenagers rarely allowed to leave their Lower East Side apartment, where they used movies (which they memorized and often re-created) as their portal into the outside world. Salon’s piece begins as an earnest exploration of the film’s origins and ends up so buried in the weeds of timelines and interviews as to spend five paragraphs on the hard-hitting issue of whether the film’s subjects saw Reservoir Dogs before or after meeting Moselle.

Still image from "The Wolfpack"

Some of this is pro forma for a buzzy documentary (or, in the case of The Jinx, documentary television series): the notion that the doc form somehow translates not only to the total transparency and purity of subjects and filmmakers, but dismissing the filmmaker’s obligation and privilege to be, above all else, a storyteller. Yet it seems odd to take, say, a minor date disparity between an interview and the press notes and, as Salon’s Lauren Wissot does, jump to the conclusion that all parties are up to something nefarious.

And it’s particularly odd, in the case of The Wolfpack, to get suspicious about the transactional nature of the filmmaker-subject relationship, and the performative quality of those subjects, when those seem such unburied subjects of the film itself. Some of the film’s marketing materials, which focus on the brothers’ Be Kind Rewind-style bargain-basement reenactments of their favorite films, come off a touch distastefully when viewed within the context of the film itself — after all, from the information we’re given, these are basically hostage videos. But it’s also striking how director Moselle’s camera seems to empower these boys, to push them to increase the frequency and activity of those initially tentative journeys outside the apartment. Their notions of their world have been, to a great extent, formed by what is captured on camera; finding themselves on that end of the lens is, for them, empowering.

Are the Angulo brothers “performing” for Moselle? Of course they are — as are the subjects of pretty much every documentary subject in the history of the form, from Nanook to the Beales to Mark Zupan. The fact that they’re open about it, and that the film (even implicitly) acknowledges it, doesn’t make them Kardashians, and Wissot’s assertion that “it was the subjects, and not the director, in firm control” would probably come as a surprise to the director and editor, who (as far as I can tell) did not cede final cut to the Angulos.

Obviously, The Wolfpack is not unimpeachable; the degree of manipulation (by all parties) is certainly worthy of discussion, as are criticisms of the degree to which Moselle lets those in her frame off the hook. I don’t agree with Ignatiy Vishnevetsky’s C+ review over at the AV Club, but at least that piece — and some of the other less-than-rhapsodic notices I’ve read — is dealing with what’s on screen. And that’s becoming a too-rare occurrence amongst the incessant hot-taking of interesting, worthwhile documentary films.

The Wolfpack is out now in limited release.