DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
The winner of the Grand Jury Prize for a documentary at this year's Sundance Film Festival was a film by Crystal Moselle about a group of teenage brothers she encountered by chance on a street in New York. It's called "The Wolfpack." Film critic David Edelstein has this review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: In the stunning documentary "The Wolfpack," we meet the six Angulo brothers of New York's Lower East Side. Each named by their Peruvian-born father Oscar for a Krishna god - Bhagavan, Govinda, Narayana, Mukunda, Krsna and Jagadisa. In 2010, director Crystal Moselle saw them run past her on the street. They looked so wild, so childishly exuberant. Over the next five years, she would chronicle their bizarre tale. Early on, the boys explain that after Oscar married their mother, Suzanne, a hippie from the Midwest, he joined Hare Krishna and decided socialization would be destructive for his children. Physically abusive, Oscar kept his boys and their younger, mentally-disabled sister behind a bolted door in a shabby apartment in a dangerous project. They had no public schooling, no friends and few trips outside, no connection to the world. Well, there's an exception and a doozy - Oscar loved movies and gave his son's DVDs, some classics like "Citizen Kane," but most of them violent, modern films. The movie's first shot of this so-called Wolfpack is of the brothers in the dark suits and glasses of Quentin Tarantino's "Reservoir Dogs." They act out scenes, having transcribed the dialogue. They're good, too - accents, delivery, spot on. In one scene, the fourth-oldest brother, Mukunda, shows off an astonishingly detailed Batman costume he fashioned. Gazing out the window, he explains what it means to him to act out "The Dark Knight."
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE WOLFPACK")
MUKUNDA ANGULO: This outfit is made out of cereal boxes and yoga mats. That's a yoga mat and the hard parts you see is cardboard from cereal boxes. When we do it, I have to get in the mind of the character. I have to be as strong as I can be to play Batman 'cause there's a responsibility sort of. That sounds pathetic to some people because - but to us and to our world, it is very personal.
After I saw "The Dark Knight," that made me believe that something was possible to happen, not because it was Batman; it's because it felt like another world. I did everything I could to make that world come true, to escape my world.
EDELSTEIN: One day in 2010, Mukunda slipped out of the apartment, but felt he'd be so exposed he wore a mask of Michael from the classic slasher "Halloween." He rambled, loitered, frightened passersby, got arrested, but his father's seal had been breached. "The Wolfpack" tells the story of the boys' gradual emergence into the world for which they're unequipped in many ways, but in others, surprisingly in tune. Part of that should be credited to their mother's homeschooling; the other part to - well, "Reservoir Dogs," "Halloween," "Friday The 13th." I confess I watched "The Wolfpack" with a mixture of awe and shame. I love some violent movies. Horror pictures and films like "The Godfather" and "Taxi Driver" helped me through adolescence. But as a critic, I often lament the coarsening effect of casual mayhem on the young and impressionable. But here is a documentary that shows how even pulpy, sadistic art can be a lifeline, a bridge off the island of terror that was the Angulo brothers' nuclear family. It's a vital reminder of what I'd forgotten movies can do. The Angulos are beautiful camera objects, dark-haired and eyed like their father, but also rangy and open-faced like their mother. Watching them move around the city - riding subways, seeing a movie in a theater for the first time, splashing in waves off Coney Island - is thrilling, heartbreaking. Sand on the beach reminds them of "Lawrence Of Arabia." A stand of trees - a forest from "Lord Of The Rings." But "The Wolfpack" is at times so painful it feels longer than its 84 minutes. And the brothers' bitterness towards their father is always in the air. Oscar largely remains in his bedroom, a recluse. The man we finally meet is a stooped gnome who never learned much English and is probably an alcoholic. Pressed by the director, he stammers it doesn't matter what you do in life. It's what you are - things happen. His boys have chosen to take responsibility for their own fates. At the end, they stage and shoot a pageant that's like a mixture of David Lynch's "Blue Velvet" and surrealist fantasy film pioneer George Melies. You can't believe how gorgeous and expressive it is. This is the rare profile documentary that's also a transcendent work of art because it captures astonishingly how art can help you make the kind of imaginative leaps that free your mind.
DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. Coming up, Kevin Whitehead reviews a new album featuring the music of Bill Frisell. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.