In a modestly sized apartment on New York’s Lower East Side, an independent nation has been declared. Breaking off from the outside world, Peruvian immigrant Oscar Angulo and his American wife Susanne decided in the 1990s to raise all seven of their children – six boys and a girl, each one named for a Hindu deity – in almost total isolation. Homeschooled by their mum, the kids were allowed out only a few times a year (and one year did not leave the house at all). But in 2010, 15-year-old Mukunda went rogue, leading by a chance meeting to this disturbing, uplifting documentary.
We first meet the boys the same way director Crystal Moselle did, in costume, suited and booted as the cast of ‘Reservoir Dogs’. For more than a decade, movies had been their only connection to the outside world, and their greatest pleasure. Encouraged by Mukunda – who transcribed scripts from the TV word for word – the brothers, now aged 16 to 23, spent their time dressing up and re-enacting their favourite films, from ‘The Godfather’ to ‘Pulp Fiction’.
Moselle’s film offers keen insights into issues around family unity and teenage rebellion. Mukunda now refuses to speak to his father, despite still living at home, while Oscar seems oddly pleased that the strict regime he laid down for years is now falling apart. It also provides a remarkable example of how art can accidentally change lives: the boys’ speech is riddled with Tarantino expletives and Oscar-clip melodrama, while Mukunda claims that it was watching ‘The Dark Knight’ that first inspired him to flee the apartment and run into the street wearing a mask, an act that initially led to his arrest but ultimately brought about the entire family’s liberation.
There are faults here. Oscar’s physically abusive behaviour is admitted to but never explored, indicative of a hands-off approach that can leave us feeling distanced from the characters (the fact that the boys all have the same look – waist-length hair, wide eyes, terrible skin – probably doesn’t help). But as a document of lives on the very fringes of existence – think ‘Grey Gardens’ via Scorsese – this is unique and fascinating.