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Overall Rating

Awesome: 26.67%
Worth A Look60%
Average: 6.67%
Pretty Bad: 0%
Total Crap: 6.67%

1 review, 9 user ratings

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Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia, The
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by Jay Seaver

"The movie, at least, isn't just White trash."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2009 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: I sympathize with the Boone County D.A. who, in the opening reel of "The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia", asks why the White family should get so much attention. There's a boy in the county from humble circumstances who just got accepted to MIT, so why not follow him with a camera? After all, Jesco White has already been the subject of one documentary (1991's PBS production "Dancing Outlaw") and there's also a fictionalized version of his life playing this festival, "White Lightnin'". Why continue to focus on the family that is responsible for so much of the area's crime?

I don't have a good answer for that. I can say, truthfully, that this sort of spectacle is kind of fascinating to watch for those of us who have the kind of lives that allow us to travel to film festivals and only have fleeting contact with it outside of theaters. It does remind us that groups we might dismiss as freaks are human beings with all the desires and complexities that entails, even if we want no part of them. Most of us certainly wouldn't want to do what director Julien Nitzberg did, follow them for a year to see how they tick.

The answer may be "like time bombs", although most of the explosions happen off-camera. Susan "Kirk" White tells us how she stabbed her boyfriend Dennis, which is a lucky break for him because she was trying to slit his throat, while her hyperactive pre-teen son from a different relationship, Tyler, screeches about how he'll do the same if he ever sees Dennis again and flips the camera the birds to say how he really feels about him. Her cousin Mousie is just getting out of jail, and is on the hunt for her husband Charlie, who, during her four year incarceration, cheated on her with Kirk and is now shacked up with his pregnant girlfriend. Just going into jail is another cousin, Sue Bob White's son Brandon, who a few months earlier went on a rampage that ended in a man's gruesome injuries and a three-week standoff with police. We hear these stories in the Whites' own matter-of-fact words, and though we don't actually see any violent crime, the clan is also matter-of-fact about their drug use, reeling off their drugs of choice, partaking on camera, and describing their activities as dealers without much apparent worry that the footage will be used as evidence against them.

There are attempts made to explain the Whites, if not justify them. The family's current matriarch is Mamie, who introduces herself as the biggest, baddest, and meanest of the whole clan, but the roots are her parents. Her father was the late Del Ray White, who became famous for "mountain dancing" (an odd variant on tap) a generation before his son Jesco, and who also, according to local law enforcement, knew the Social Security Code better than anyone in Washington, managing to get his whole family regular payments for being insane. It's suggested that he was able to ride herd on the clan, something his wife Bertie Ray - 84 as the film starts, and clearly a bit uncomfortable with her family's behavior at her birthday party - was unable to do despite her big heart (family calls her "The Miracle Woman", saying she raised 34 children, her own and ones abandoned by others). We're also given a brief description of the coal industry, which paid its employees in scrip, forcing them into a sort of indentured servitude and poverty. Still, the most interesting description may come from Mamie's brother Poney, who moved away with his family to become a house-painter in Minnesota. He won't say anything negative about his family, but points out that once you've got a bad name, you're stuck with it, and he was able to build himself up by getting someplace where the White name didn't mean anything.

Nitzberg lets us chew on this a little, thinking about how family can become toxic without trying to put the words in Poney's mouth. He does that throughout, occasionally making a specific point, but mostly allowing the audience to draw its own conclusions from the Whites' words and actions. The rapport he was able to build with the clan is impressive (and likely long-established; he was a producer on Dancing Outlaw), it certainly feels like he has full access, other than to courtrooms where cameras are not allowed. He also does a very good job of keeping this large family straight for the audience, through devices like a family tree that frequently appears on screen, useful captions, generally keeping the focus on a core group, and not introducing us to family members who are too similar all at once.

Indeed, his technique is very impressive. Is it misguided to make legends out of this family? I'm not sure. I didn't feel like Nitzberg had shown me a freakshow, but I also couldn't shake the feeling that he and the musicians like Hank Williams III (captioned as a "family friend") certainly aren't doing anyone much good by depicting them as "true rebels of the South".

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originally posted: 07/12/09 02:05:55
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 Tribeca Film Festival For more in the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 Fantasia Festival For more in the 2009 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 Chicago Underground Film Festival For more in the 2009 Chicago Underground Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

4/11/12 Patty Tough to watch, But impossible to look away! 4 stars
2/18/11 Sammi Jo A train wreck of ignorance and entitlement. Sad... 4 stars
2/14/11 martha lee saw the movie; nothing new,we people in ky.would not of put up w/such stupidity 3 stars
11/12/10 Sammy I watched first half. Nothing special really. 1 stars
7/21/10 damalc on a movie screen is as close as i want to get to these fascinating people 4 stars
6/01/10 Ron The White's are a wild and crazy family!! 5 stars
9/08/09 Shannon WHITE MY FAMILY FUCKING ROCKS 5 stars
5/21/09 Sabreena Juarez Unbelievable!!! An incredible look into the lives of an icredible family...a MUST see! 5 stars
5/17/09 Mykel Board Americans all think they're rebels, at home or at the office.This story is REAL rebels 5 stars
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  DVD: 26-Oct-2010



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