With the June 12 theatrical release of The Wolfpack—winner of this year's Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize for U.S. Documentary—the Angulo brothers have been thrust into the media spotlight, landing in Vogue, Vanity Fair and on the cover of The New York Times' Arts & Leisure section, and even collaborating with Vice Media on a short film. Being plunged into such a media frenzy could overwhelm anyone, but for the young men who spent much of their lives locked away from civilization in an apartment on New York's Lower East Side and who are just being exposed to media, advertising and everything else in the outside world, it seems to have been a surprisingly seamless transition.
"How we're experiencing life right now is definitely [on the go]," 20-year-old Mukunda Angulo said in a phone interview from Los Angeles where the documentary just premiered. "That means, well, I'll give you an example: It's as if you're riding on an airport escalator and all these things are passing you by and we are grabbing every single thing."
Mukunda and his brothers—Bhagavan, Narayana, Govinda, Krsna (who now goes by Glenn) and Jagadisa (who goes by Eddie)—have spent the last several years emerging from the isolation of their childhood home. Now fully immersed in society, the brothers are at last experiencing media, technology (they have iPhones and Samsung smartphones, while three of the brothers are on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram) and consumer products (brands they have a fondness for include Coca-Cola, Heinz ketchup and Kellogg's cereal; they also like '80s punk fashion and yearn to check out a drive-in movie theater).
The Angulos' unusual upbringing was the focus of filmmaker Crystal Moselle's acclaimed documentary, which chronicled their lives over four years following Moselle's encounter with the family during one of their first public outings. Because of patriarch Oscar Angulo's belief that the outside world would corrupt them, the boys spent the majority of their adolescence confined inside their apartment for months and sometimes years on end.
"A lot of what my dad used to do was not conforming with what he would call a society of robots, not being a part of that," said Mukunda. "We have never thought that way. We've always seen [society] just as people raised in life in their own way, with different points of views, different opinions. We always looked for ways to connect with people. If we don't connect with people in certain ways, if we don't have that much in common, we find common ground, and we build up on that. We're not anti-anything at all. If anything, we're really open-minded."
The Angulo brothers were home-schooled by their mother Susanne, while their link to the larger world—and what kept them sane, engaged and creative—was largely limited to their vast collection of VHS tapes, featuring some 5,000 movies as well as TV shows like The Partridge Family, Seinfeld, Saturday Night Live and That '70s Show.
Some of the most memorable advertising they were exposed to included ads for Nintendo's Game Boy and those featuring the Geico cavemen.
The brothers would eventually go from watching performances to creating their own, transcribing scripts of films they loved so that they could learn the dialogue and act out the parts.
In Moselle's four years with the family, she witnessed their reenactment of films like The Dark Knight and Reservoir Dogs. It was those moments—with the brothers decked out in their intricately designed costumes, like a Batman suit cobbled together from scraps of yoga mats and cereal boxes and the iconic black suits and sunglasses worn in the Tarantino classic—that helped Moselle's documentary strike a chord.
As the typical American child is bombarded with media and marketing messages from the earliest age, the experience of the Angulo brothers is unique, to say the least.
"[As consumers], we are savvy about advertising and marketing, but my intuition would be, without access to the products, you may not develop that knowledge about marketing's persuasion and you might be that much more susceptible to it," said Claudia Townsend, assistant professor of marketing at the University of Miami School of Business.
"Because there is such sensory overload in the real world … you learn to filter and evaluate things," added Allen Adamson, North American chairman at brand consultancy Landor. And those who grow up without that? They have to learn to "develop an immune system to the messaging," he said.
But that's part of the fun, according to Mukunda. Talking about going to one of the most advertising-innundated places in the world, Times Square, he related: "To actually spot it in person was kind of like a child going to an amusement park."
This story first appeared in the June 22 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.