Crystal Moselle’s new documentary The Wolfpack takes its name from one of the most persistently popular jokes in The Hangover, in which Zach Galifianakis affirms his fraternal love for his bachelor party buddies. The Hangover is one of the many films available to the Angulo brothers, the subjects of The Wolfpack, and one of the most unusual families ever committed to celluloid.

With Sanskrit names and uniformly shoulder-length black hair, the Angulo brothers lived on the fringes of society. After carefully ingratiating herself with the family, Moselle gained rare, privileged access to the insular Angulo residence and discovered that the children were living just short of captive lives, leaving the apartment a handful of times each year, or once, or not at all.

Under the tyrannical rule of an anti-establishment father, the five brothers had been effectively removed from civilization through their formative years. Instead, they related to the outside world, and one another, through obsessive viewings of their extensive DVD collection, eventually going on to recreate scenes from their favorites.# In The Wolfpack, a universal process takes place with shocking directness as the boys study the pop-culture canon and, in the simplest possible terms, learn to be people.

***

Moselle straddles a difficult line with her new documentary, reconciling the boys’ inherent humanity with the undeniably alien circumstances of their upbringing, but this narrative centering on children sequestered from the reaches of culture was not born with The Wolfpack. In various forms, fiction has explored the hypothetical disconnect between unadulterated human nature and the shaping effects of other people, media, life, all that stuff making up the outside world — this narrative can be contoured to work as a thought experiment, an allegory about human nature, or a depiction of personal strength and resilience — but in all instances, the core critical thrust speculates on the factors that distinguish ‘humans’ from ‘people’.

In the most extreme examples, the lost-child narrative confers a completely bestial nature unto the isolated subject. In the 1994 Jodie Foster vehicle Nell, the actress plays a so-called ‘feral girl’ who speaks in a sputtering non-language and become violent at the slightest provocation.# She’s more animal than girl, falling back on her basest impulses in the absence of polite society’s influence. This process doesn’t have to breed savagery, though; The Jungle Book’s Mowgli went through a similar experience away from the reach of humanity, and turned out to be a pretty mellow dude. (Though some of that might just be owed to the children’s-film milieu.)

But the richer examples of this narrative phenomenon illuminate greater truths about the human tendency to accept the reality with which we’re presented.

The boys of the The Wolfpack are woefully unstimulated by their provincial, dull day-to-day in the walls of their Lower East Side apartment, and so they recast reality in a more engaging image. They come as close to fusing their own lives with the idealized lives they see onscreen as humanly possible, sometimes even losing themselves in their bizarre rituals. In a memorable scene, the boys turn out all the lights, dawn eerie homemade slasher-flick icon masks, and start a small bonfire inside of their apartment, as if they’re making some kind of sacrifice to the malevolent gods of cinema. The audience witnesses the fringe of human behavior in the private, surreal ceremony, and fearfully recognizes those latent impulses in themselves. The implied thought is that with the right combination of external deprivations, anyone could end up dressed like Freddy Krueger, committing minor arson in his own residence.

wolfpack-1024

In Yorgos Lanthimos’ 2010 masterpiece Dogtooth, a similarly iron-fisted father holds his family hostage, but to more allegorical ends. As a proud Greek all too familiar with political turmoil, Lanthimos imagines the father as a dictatorial figure, exerting hushed, absolute control over his household in the same way that a despot warps the interior reality of a nation to suit his own purposes. He creates enemies from shadow and smoke, informing his children that a stray cat wandering in the garden poses a lethal threat to their well-being.

Language persists as a crucial element; here, the father deliberately informs his family that words have other meanings (chairs are referred to as ‘sea’) to keep their brains malleable, and under his sway. Constructs we take for granted break down, starting with the linguistic, but progressing to the sexual in short order. When the link to the outside world is severed, the party in control can manipulate even the most basic aspects of perception. It’s not brainwashing, because there’s nothing to wash away. It’s brain-scripting, the creation of a manufactured status quo. Both this film and The Wolfpack see the fearsome potential in a totality of power, envisioning a nightmare scenario that barely registers as such to the people in it. Like the adult children of Dogtooth, the Angulo brothers live at their father’s mercy. He owns their lives.

FatherAngula

As you read this, director Lenny Abrahamson is currently in the process of adapting Emma Donoghue’s popular novel Room for the screen, shooting for a release later this year. The book became something of a phenomenon as it climbed the best-seller charts, its combination of lurid, potboiler thrills with epistemological philosophizing resonating with casual book-clubbers and highbrow types alike.

In the first half, a young woman and her five-year-old son Jack engineer a daring escape from a dank basement enclosure in which they’ve been held captive for years. Things get interesting when she and her son attempt to reintegrate into the public; she wrestles with the lingering trauma of her imprisonment, but the boy’s got no idea how to function in a world that treats him as an extraterrestrial. He has no way to parse out what is or is not normal, with no experience to draw from. Continuing to drink his mother’s breastmilk at age five turns out to be a no-no, but he has even more difficulty meeting new people and understanding the myriad contradictions inherent to having manners. (It takes him a while to get the hang of the concept of white lies.) He approaches politeness, government, religion, family, and a host of other institutions from a depersonalized perspective, taking everything completely at face value.

By considering things in the simplest possible terms, young Jack exposes the absurdities that many “right-minded” citizens take for granted. Hearing the antithetical concept of “hurt” spelled out and explained underscores the perverse nature of violence more effectively than any grand monologue possibly could. Ultimately, The Wolfpack explores a similar phenomenon, though on a less sweeping scale. Moselle and the Angulos don’t address topics as universal as pain or identity, but they go through the same process with regards to the movies. They see Pulp Fiction through pristine eyes, and as such, theirs is a completely different experience.

The leering eyes of humankind have always been attracted to oddities, but fiction’s lost children present a unique allure. The boys of The Wolfpack travel a deviating path the viewer hasn’t had the luxury to take, shrugging off the influential parts of modern existence to live in a way that might outwardly seem more “pure”, less “diluted” by culture. They’re a control group, designed to answer the question of how the human soul survives in a vacuum. The aforementioned stories pose more philosophical quandaries than they resolve, however. If there’s a single prevailing message to be found, it’s this: Life is no more than the set of terms on which we’ve all agreed.