Samuel Kishi’s semi-autobiographical film The Wolves (also known as Los Lobos in some territories) is an intimate portrait of an estranged family situated amid the complex reality of the global migrant crisis. After pursuing a divorce, Lucia (Martha Reyes Arias) moves to the US with her little children – Max and Leo (played by real-life brothers Max and Leo Nájar Márquez) – to start her life anew in an immigrant colony. In their cramped room for which they have paid $500, the siblings go through a ritual, recording disciplinary vows that should be maintained when Lucia is out for work. All these commandments, which include not leaving the room, are pledged allegiance in the hope of a long-promised trip to Disneyland.
This sets off a series of discoveries and conflicts, as well as an eventual adaptation to the place they have resettled in. Initially, the walls of this room appear as a threshold point separating the world of gangs, drug addiction, and violence from the playful innocence of Max and Leo. But, as the film progresses, such dichotomies unravel to foreground the intricacies of human relationships, cohabitation, and resilience in precarious communities.
The entire trajectory of the characters’ development is reflected in the adventures of the brothers’ ninja wolf alter-egos. Brilliantly rendered through animated sketches, the wolves project their psychological situation and become a cathartic occupation for them to locate their changing circumstances. When tensions develop between the brothers and their mother, Max defiantly leaves the shelter of plastic toys, cartoons, and tender trifles to expose himself to used syringes, lighters, and raging teenagers.
Thereafter, the brothers’ idyllic existence turns upside down when Max’s unruly friends force themselves into the room, wreak havoc, and steal Lycia’s savings. The world starts acquiring a different meaning for the hitherto warded-off brothers. A bulb that once helped the ninja wolf alter-egos to escape monsters in their imagination becomes an ominous symbol when Max encounters someone using it as drug paraphernalia. At this point in the story, instead of falling into a sentimental trap or casting value judgements upon the characters, this film crafts an ingenious story of hope in the face of absolute adversity.
As the family negotiates with the dynamics of the locality, they gradually become conscious of their political identity as immigrants. Disparate strategies of survival lead them to join the refugee rehabilitation programme of the Reformed Church for free ration supply, if not for being devout Christians. In this otherwise moralising space, hundreds of immigrants and refugees ritually assemble to signify a body politic. Here, Max chances upon the guy who stole their savings – both of them exchanging gazes in a profound realisation of shared vulnerability.
Henceforth, The Wolves takes a decisively political turn when both identify their stigmatised collective identity and develop camaraderie beyond personal feuds. In the final frame, the mother-children trio looks back at the camera with an unmistakable sense of autonomy. With acquired maturity and knowledge about their state of existence as migrants, the children now seem more concerned with moments of filial joy and laughter than the credibility of Disneyland. One senses that the brothers might not ask their mother again – with incorrupt, inquiring eyes: “Do you need a card to work?”