Monday, October 12, 2009

DOCFEST 2009—Peter Galvin’s Review of The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia

The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia chronicles a year in the life of a family of self-proclaimed hillbillies. One member of the White family, Jesco, has already achieved cult status, after being featured in a 1991 PBS special called Dancing Outlaw, which spawned a sequel in 1994 and a narrative feature earlier this year. Jesco is an Appalacian "mountain dancer" whose many run-ins with the law have delayed his dream of being hailed as a worthy successor to his late father, the famous mountain dancer D. Ray White. Director Julien Nitzberg now offers us a chance to meet the rest of the White family, which is extensive, but even with so many lives to explore he fails to discover anyone with the same level of natural charisma as Jesco White.

Scrutinizing the White family tree is enough to give one a headache. We are introduced to enough aunts, uncles, mothers and grandchildren that the filmmakers are forced to caption each family member's name even after featuring them on-screen several times. At the top of the tree is the matriarch of the family, Bertie Mae, who with her daughter Mamie attempts to establish some sort of order within the group while their children become involved in increasingly-dangerous circumstances. From prescription pills to attempted murder, the exploits of the Whites are often lessons in fatalism, a fact of which the family is disturbingly proud.

Amidst the head counting, a few stories do rise and take focus, such as a trip to pick up Mousie White from jail and Kirk White’s battle with Child Protective Services to see her newborn daughter, but by and large the film is representative of the Dickhouse production logo—a company run by a crew from MTV’s Jackass. Like its TV ancestor, the footage is more focused on chronicling day-to-day drug use and exploiting violent antics for shock value than exploring anything below the surface. The most interesting moments are probably accidental, when the Whites stop mugging for the camera and let their guard down—Jesco’s reflections on fame and fan expectations are particularly memorable—but then it’s off to another night at the bar to watch the Whites get drunk. Occasionally, local police and government officials are interviewed in an effort to situate the family’s poor behavior within the community, but for the most part Nitzberg seems hell-bent on remaining impartial towards his subjects. Perhaps I would be too, after getting an earful of the multiple stabbings and shootings of which the Whites freely boast.

The Wild and Wonderful Whites is a film about an unattractive and offensive group of people. It’s not my place to make judgment on their character, but it is my duty to tell you if the film about them is any good, and frankly it’s not. Forgoing the fact that the film says nothing insightful about its characters, its meandering structure forces even the exploitative elements to grow tiresome well before its 85 minutes are up. Worse still, it’s a film that encourages its subjects to continue their damaging lifestyle in the pursuit of some sort of fame, never realizing they’re being laughed at, not with.

Cross-published on
Ornery-Cosby and Twitch.