For ‘Wolfpack’ subjects, a move from fandom to fascination
The six fraternal cinephiles known as the Wolfpack -- not to be confused with Bradley Cooper’s four hung-over amnesiacs of the same name -- entered the Beacon Theatre here recently for a reunion screening of “Goodfellas.” The film was one of the young men’s favorites, and they were excited to watch it on the big screen, with some of the cast members present.
“We’ve seen it hundreds of times, maybe more,” said Bhagavan Angulo, 23, the oldest brother, a low-key personality.
“It’s like sometimes, OK, our mom is making a big Italian dinner? Let’s do ‘Goodfellas,’” said Mukunda Angulo, 20, the fourth-oldest, and one of the most outgoing.
A moment later he paused and looked around at the stately confines of the Beacon, to which none of the brothers had ever been. “This place is very ‘Goodfellas.’”
“Doing” movies has been a longtime tradition for the Angulos, who grew up in a housing development on New York’s Lower East Side with a rural Midwestern mother and a South American-born father who converted to Hare Krishna.
Their father -- an enigmatic but domineering sort -- forbade his sons from leaving the apartment for all but the most basic necessities. Most years the boys were hardly outside more than a few times, if that. (They were home-schooled, and their father, Oscar Angulo, took care of essentials such as food shopping.)
Their exposure to the wider world instead came via the film classics Oscar would encourage them to watch -- older ones such as “Casablanca” and “Citizen Kane,” and the modern likes of Scorcese and Tarantino and Nolan. They would piece the films together on paper, a kind of ad hoc script, then act out some or all of the scenes. Each brother would inhabit a given role that almost never varied. Sometimes they’d perform just for themselves. Sometimes they’d film their reconstructions.
Footage of those reenactments and other material from their lives can be seen in “The Wolfpack,” a documentary that has become an object of intense curiosity since it -- and its half-dozen sharply styled subjects -- washed up at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year.
A first-timer named Crystal Moselle directed the film, which will arrive in theaters June 12 in New York and the following week in Los Angeles. It is sure to evoke comparisons to other documentaries featuring colorfully cloistered -- if also more polarizing -- real-life characters such as Big Edie and Little Edie of “Grey Gardens,” or the Friedmans of “Capturing the Friedmans.” In the process, the film could confer a kind of instant cult status on a group of young men who until a few years ago had barely left their apartment, much less had a media light trained on them.
As he looked up at the “Goodfellas” screen, Bhagavan seemed to be taking it all in. He focused particularly on Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill character, his usual assigned part in the Angulo production. “It’s good to see him do it,” he said. “There are tricks you can pick up.”
Moselle did not set out to make a movie about insularity and cinema, much less one that doubled as a social experiment. Walking down the street in downtown Manhattan about five years ago, she came across six young men, all dressed, as they are many days, in matching “Reservoir Dogs” outfits. Not long before, the boys had “broken out” -- their term for their first unsupervised forays outside -- and Moselle was intrigued by both their manner and their story.
She asked if she could shoot them -- Moselle has a fashion-photography background and thought their aesthetic would read well. Trusting and generally eager for social contact, the siblings agreed. Soon Moselle was spending time with them at their apartment, often with the camera on. (A seventh sibling, a sister, is the youngest; she is not featured heavily in the movie.)
Moselle said it was difficult at first for her to break through. “It was all references,” she said. “Everything felt like a film to them.” She was uncertain of where the story was going, or how to shape it into a feature.
The brothers were unsure too, thinking this might just add up to a lot of footage, not a fully realized film.
“We had spent so many years imagining ourselves in movies that it was strange to think we’d actually star in one,” said Govinda, 22, who with his twin is next oldest after Bhagavan, and who possesses a wry sense of humor. As the only sibling who has moved out of the family’s apartment (he shares a place with several roommates in Brooklyn and harbors cinematographer ambitions), Govinda is the brother who’s assimilated most into the larger world. (At the end of an evening with a reporter, he also handed over a business card. “I came prepared,” he said, flashing a grin.)
Eventually Moselle, with the help of veteran indie-film producers such as Hunter Gray and Alex Orlovsky, found a way in, via the brothers’ story of becoming. If the finished product is more raw than polished, it doesn’t entirely seem to matter, not when subjects are this unusual or compelling.
There is something endearingly guileless about the Angulos boys, as if a baby could suddenly articulate its enthusiasm for everything new around it. At “Goodfellas,” they seemed excited by the basic ticketing and seating plan, and downright ecstatic -- Mukunda in particular -- about the presence of actors such as Liotta in the theater. “I couldn’t believe it. Even though I’m never Henry [Liotta’s character], I’m still so excited.”
At dinner after the screening, a charge rippled across the table when the brothers learned that Joel Coen and Frances McDormand were in the restaurant. They immediately started making plans to catch the pair’s attention. “Maybe do something daring,” said Govinda’s twin, Narayana.
“Like the orgasm scene from ‘When Harry Met Sally’?” his brother replied.
Still, the rudiments of modern life can elude them. Several pronounced New York’s Houston Street like the Texas city, despite growing up just a few blocks from it. Small talk can confound, as can restaurant ordering.
“There’s still a learning curve,” said Megan Delaney, a friend of Moselle’s who became an associate producer on the film and is both a friend to and public attache of sorts for the brothers. “They’re getting there, but sometimes you have to stop and remember their backgrounds.”
Though viewers of the film may find it hard at times to distinguish between the brothers, that is not the case in person, where each has a very clearly etched personality. (It also helps that, as they’ve stepped out more into the public eye, they are less likely to dress and look the same.)
The two brothers who are perhaps most different than the rest, in part by virtue of their age, are the two youngest, now 18 and 16. They recently legally changed their last names from Angulo to Hughes Reisenbichler (an homage to their mother’s side of the family) and their given Krishna names from Krsna and Jagadisa to Glenn and Eddie.
If that sounds like a “Beverly Hills Cop” throwback, it should. The pair have an odd fascination with all things ‘80s, particularly Huey Lewis.
“It’s just the best music out there,” Glenn said. “I found it on YouTube. I don’t know why he’s not more famous.” One of the striking aspects of speaking to the brothers is that, since they are exposed to all manner of pop culture but largely ignorant of the relative valuations society has placed on it, they react most purely to what they like. Theirs is the unadorned aesthetic judgment of a critic, but in the body of a fan.
One of the highlights of Glenn and Eddie’s associations with Moselle, they said, is that through a connection of hers they were able to recently meet their musical idol. “He gave my brother a harmonica. He gave me some tips,” Glenn said, as he walked down Broadway. “It was awesome.” Eddie, the most taciturn of the group, nodded, then asked a few passing strangers if he could bum a cigarette. The power of a forbidden smoke is a curious thing.
At the dinner, the brothers explained their feelings about the film. They were hardly unanimous in their appreciation. Narayana is probably the most resistant. He declined a more elaborate interview about the film and said that whenever “Wolfpack” conversation comes up at the office (he works at a consumer environmental group), “I make sure they know I wasn’t exploited,” a plausible and seemingly serious comment.
Then a minute later he interrupted the conversation to say he was joking, as if not wanting to call more attention to questions some viewers were likely to have. Like several of his brothers, he has not seen the movie, not wanting to re-live what he said he already felt close to.
Govinda, who hadn’t seen the film either, seemed to wave aside his twin’s concerns.
“I’m content with how things unfolded,” he said. “The release is coming a long time after we broke out, and that’s the right time. Some of my brothers feel differently. But we were semi-aware that exposure was going to portray us in so many different ways, so why regret it? Why think about the negativity?”
Bhagavan, too, takes a more benign view of the brothers’ lives and the microscope under which they’ve played out.
“It’s unexpected in a lot of ways,” said the eldest Angulo, a yoga teacher and hip-hop dancer. “But it’s all been a journey. There were times, even before the movie, when I started going out and it was scary. I didn’t know much about the world, I didn’t know many people or how to get around. But over time, I learned, little by little. And now it’s like, ‘What else can I learn?’ I always want to be figuring something out.”
For all the ways the brothers have landed on their feet, there remain some unanswered questions. Even as the film ultimately seems to show some redemption for Oscar, for instance, it’s easy to wonder how much his restrictive behavior veered from tough parenting to something worse. The siblings speak of their father in opaque terms, rarely criticizing him outright but not defending him either; more than one brother used a variation of “he has his way” and said they thought their father sincerely believed he was keeping his family close, even if they didn’t always like the effects of that approach.
Moselle said the Angulo patriarch had seen the film (he did given an interview for it as well) and liked it. “He said it was interesting to see his children’s point of view. It was funny, in an uncomfortable way,” she said.
The boys’ mother, Susanne, is the backbone of the family, clearly beloved by her children, but how much she was under her husband’s control is also a murky matter.
At a Sundance after-party she could be heard on the phone talking to him, trying to explain why she might be home a day later because of a brewing snowstorm over New York. She sought to hold her ground, but there was a quavering to her voice.
How the boys are doing now will be a question many viewers will ask. The answer, like so many things “Wolfpack,” can be complicated. The Angulos enjoy close relationships with one another and regularly watch movies in groups -- now, perhaps more healthily, in theaters. (A recent outing had a few of then going out to see “It Follows.”) They seem to have become much more at ease with the larger world even since Sundance.
Apart from Govinda, though, their home status continues to define them. It is a double-edged sword, giving them a support network but perhaps furthering a co-dependency. Govinda, who does not conform as much to the group fashions (he has cut his hair shorter than some of the brothers, and, on this evening, has opted out of the others’ elaborate stylings) said he has encouraged more of them to move out. Those who have finished high school said they would like to, if monetary circumstances allow.
For the moment, they are content to reap the benefits of their newfound attention.
In the restaurant they pile on the orders and then revel in them Angulo-style; when a heaping portion of meat arrives for Govinda, Narayna, who is vegetarian, notes to his brother “That’s an ‘American Psycho’ plate.”
Mukunda keeps up the high level of enthusiasm too, even when talking about an unlikely subject.
“Did you see when we were outside before the movie? That guy with the hair?” he recounted. “We think he’s our stalker. He’s been at all of our screenings, and he always seems to be around when we’re taking photos.” Mukunda paused. “We have a stalker. I guess that’s pretty cool.”
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