Friday, July 3, 2015

The Wolfpack (Crystal Moselle, 2015)

(My expanded review available at Seattle Screen Scene. Excerpt below.)

A maddening documentary for opposite reasons: sloppy story framing and contrived framing. In many moments, context, chronology, and even character are so muddled, that even the compelling subject matter fails (and I was left feeling guilty that I just didn't care), and in other moments, the purportedly candid, spontaneous scenes (the trip to Coney Island, the phone call) feel anything but candid, and I wondered, uncomfortably, just how much the director was directing (eg. I imagine this: "Could you say that again, but include how many children you have and how long it's been since you've seen your mother?").

The sloppiness, I think, is an aim at artfulness - and in the hands of a more experienced director and editor, the cuts from one contextless scene to the next could have added up to emotional depth and a clearer arc. There are enough poignant moments - the camera held on the face of one boy or of their mother, a scene of vibrant dancing and running down tight hallways - that I can see the glimmers of a powerful film in the tangle. As it is, so artless, I felt uncomfortably complicit - in the act of watching - in something bordering on the exploitative and sensationalist.

The choice to make the boys essentially nameless is also unsettling; we get a recital of their names at the beginning, but throughout the film, those names are lost in the "pack." It is a deliberate choice, of course, to show the boys as so tightly connected to one another - a survival mechanism, a mechanism forced on them, too, given the tight, prison-like living quarters - but the effect of the choice is that it alienates me from the boys as individuals, from their stories. The larger story remains fuzzy, distant, cold.

And then, wandering round the edges of the film, acknowledged once initially and then mostly forgotten, is the sister who is "special," a lonely vulnerable figure who holds the deepest poignancy for me; I left the cinema worrying for her most, and, ironically enough, it is her name, Vishnu, alone that I remember though even the director herself doesn't seem very interested in her.

I believe Crystal Moselle's heart is in the right place - the film feels like a sincere effort to tell a story and to tell it truthfully - but the skill, or lack thereof, undermines the effort too much to be able to recommend the film. As my friend said to me as we walked out of the cinema, "I wish we'd just read an article about this family instead." And given the cinematic interests of the boys in the family - their own love for film, and film, like their pack grouping, being a tool of survival for them - it's a real shame. I wonder how they themselves will feel about this documentary about them, particularly when they (re)watch it years from now, more distant from the situation of their growing up?

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