Film Review – The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia
One possible attribute of a great documentary is that it shows you a world that you might not be familiar with and finds a way to make it relatable. This can be a great challenge, as it is very easy to have the subjects become caricatures. This was one of my concerns when I heard the synopsis to The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia, directed by Julien Nitzberg.
I honestly knew very little about this film before going to see it. My main interest was that I heard it was produced by Johnny Knoxville. He is not the first person you think of when you hear the word “documentary,” but it seemed like such a strange concept that I assumed there had to be a great story to be told. It also should be noted that, whether you like it or not, Jackass is a form of documentary, so this isn’t a completely implausible idea. Despite any worries, the film proved to be one of the more interesting character-driven documentaries to be released in the last few years.
The film follows a rebellious Appalachian clan named the Whites, who exist very much in the same vein as the Hatfields and McCoys, from the small county of Boone, West Virginia, over the course of a year. Much to the chagrin of the locals, the White family are hard-partying, drug addicted, and a violent bunch who are responsible for a significant portion of the crime in their hometown.
Any concerns over Knoxville’s involvement should be eased by Nitzberg being the director. While neither a household name nor having an extensive filmography, there is one area that he excels in—working with the White family. Back in 1991, he was an associate producer on the TV documentary The Dancing Outlaw, a profile on PBS about Jesco White that helped make the family famous both for their skill in tap dancing as well as their history of violence. Somewhat miraculously, Jesco has survived, and as the only living son of patriarch D. Ray, he clearly sets the tone for the rest of the family still.
Nitzberg quickly sets the stage for the family with an opening montage that covers the death of the D. Ray and the rest of Jesco’s brothers, all of whom died in a violent manner. Right from the get-go, we understand that the life expectancy of a White family member is probably half that of the national average. Perhaps that is why they try and get twice as much out of life.
We are privy to excessive drug use, criminal trials, birth, death, and trouble with the government. On the surface, the Whites are everything you might expect from a stereotypical self-described “white trash” family. The art of the film is in getting a glance at the moments when they let down their tough façade and let you see the emotion underneath. In some ways it is amazing how deep inside their world the Whites let the filmmakers, given the violent temperament of the family. Right from the beginning, one of the family members admits on camera to intending to murder her ex-husband when she stabbed him.
In addition to the possible criminal implications, it is curious to see the incestuous nature of the family and those who surround; at times it feels straight out of a Jerry Springer episode. When I say incestuous I’m not using it in any illegal sense, but more as a representation of the shared web of lovers that repeat amongst various family members.
There is a clear separation from reality and fantasy with the family members. They don’t seem to fully understand the repercussions for violent crimes and drug use, and tend to blame everyone but themselves. There are moments, though, where you see them have flashes of self-awareness, and those are amongst the most beautiful moments in the movie.
The biggest problem with the film is that it is a concept documentary, and the filmmakers are completely at the mercy of luck in terms of what events occur. There isn’t a specific story thread that this film is based around. If this were Hollywood, the producers would’ve stepped in and amped up the drama or edited the film together to make it feel like there was non-stop action. While the family members we meet are interesting, there are definitely highs and lows in terms of the tales we hear, and it sometimes feels like we are given B storylines to fill time. Personally, I like that the film feels authentic, but the slow pace at times could turn people off.
Despite all of their flaws, the loyalty to the family makes this group of mischievants endearing. It is hard not to wonder what happened to everyone after filming concluded; the film creates a sort of bond, like they were the black sheep in your own family. This film shows that even though the viewer might be a world apart, at the core there is humanity in everyone. It is all a matter of perspective.
Final Grade: B