Director: Crystal Moselle
Composers: Danny Bensi, Saunder Jurriaans, Aska Matsumiya
Nestled in a small apartment in New York City’s Lower East Side was a family of nine who barely ever left the confines of their home. Oscar and Susanne Angulo moved to New York shortly after getting married, with the desire to make a little money to eventually move to Europe and have a family in Scandinavia, a locale the couple, and especially Oscar, a man originally from Peru who had moved Stateside with his American wife, deemed a good fit with his ideas on family and national values. Unfortunately these plans were thwarted and the couple never let the city, nor the sixteenth floor four bedroom housing project they lived in. Inspired by his interests in eastern religions, Oscar wanted to have a very large family but due to his wife’s age the family stopped growing after the birth of the seventh child, all of whom were named after Hare Krishna deities: Mukunda, Narayana, Govinda, Bhagavan, Krisna, Jagadesh, and the only daughter Visnu. Because of Oscar’s tendencies towards paranoia and mistrust of America and its citizens, and especially the inhabitants of the island of Manhattan, the family was never permitted to leave home. Only on a few monitored excursions were the kids allowed to walk in the city, but sometimes months, if not years, would go by between these outings – leaving all education at the hands of the children’s mother.
Oddly, for a man so constraining and strict, Oscar was extremely permissive with the media he would let his brood consume. As the only one with a key to the apartment, the father would leave for errands and grocery runs and return with movies for the kids to watch. There was no discernment that went into the choice of films the kids were brought, as is evidenced by the teenagers’ preference for the violent and curse-filled works of Quentin Tarantino. Especially the six older boys (the only daughter is the youngest and also suffers from an undisclosed disability) consumed and absorbed these films, to the point of obsession. Their coming of age through cinematic works can also be fascinatingly detected in their speech patterns, as they speak as if they are acting themselves and each sentence is riddled with curse words and idioms that seem cherry-picked from their favorite films. Furthering this love of the movies is the boys’ choice to transcribe their favorite movies and stage them themselves, taking over the roles previously held by the likes of Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Harvey Keitel, and Steve Buscemi. These are their games, but also their lives – for it’s really the only version of “outside” that they have.
The catalyst for change and the only reason we have this documentary to begin with is due to the decision that Mukunda made one day to disobey his father and venture outside on his own. He did so with a mask inspired by Jason from Friday the 13th, and therefore alarming the people on the street and leading to at first an arrest, and then a recovery in a hospital and forced sessions with a therapist that quickly applied to all the Angulo children. Mukunda’s decision infected his siblings and very soon all the brothers began leaving the house and walking around the city and having little excursions, defiant of their father’s wishes. On one such excursion the filmmaker, Crystal Moselle, saw the kids and ran up to them. The film student began a friendship with the siblings and eventually this led to the creation of the documentary.
The film is clearly made by a very inexperienced filmmaker, but the subjects are so compelling that it hardly matters. Mostly, Moselle has no idea what to do with them after having told their story and the awkward third act is uneven and messy. At times as a viewer I felt bad, because the movie (and I was complicit in this) made me feel like I was at a zoo looking at strange creatures and trying to identify their characteristics and figure out what made them tick. This is the problem with such works, at some point we stop learning and begin to ogle, and it is why I despise reality television. Oscar is depicted as the ultimate evil, and I can understand why, but the defeated and impotent man we see on screen is not the big bad the movie details prior to his appearance. Moselle has a lot to learn, but if she keeps finding interesting subjects to capture then she will be on to something interesting. More fascinating, though, are the boys and mostly their futures. If Moselle is smart enough she will take a hint from Michael Apted and his Up series and revisit this strange clan in a few years and update us on their progress and what they are doing with their lives a few years after their true entrance into the world.