Well, if you want to feel like your blood relatives maybe aren’t so bad – and perhaps feel better about yourself as well – come with me to Boone County, West Virginia…
Co-produced by Jackass’ Johnny Knoxville, The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia follows the extended, rowdy White family – led by matriarch Mamie and her brother Jesco (who was the subject of his own documentary, The Dancing Outlaw, in 1991). For one year, director Julien Nitzberg follows White family members with names like Bertie Mae, Sue Bob, mother and son Bo and Derek (yep, Bo-Derek), Brandon Poe, Annie Mae, Mousie, Poney, and Little Man. Half of the family are in early graves, while the other half live for the moment – drinkin’, smokin', snortin’, and cussin’ their way through each day.
It could be easy to dismiss The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia as a car-crash TV in the form of an 88-minute movie – especially when witnessing the Whites shooting guns in their backyard, giving each other homemade tattoos, and blatantly abusing both legal and illegal drugs (Derek demonstrates “the Boone County mating call” by shaking a prescription bottle). The final straw for many viewers will probably be the visit to new mom Kirk, who’s snorting crushed pills in her hospital room hours after giving birth to her daughter (the father is her cousin’s former boyfriend).
However, things turn somber when 84-year-old Bertie Mae (Mamie’s mom) suffers a stroke, and – shocker! – Child Protective Services takes away Kirk’s baby. [Side note: You know the Whites are trouble when they’re so familiar with Child Protective Services that they refer to it in shorthand (“CPS”).] And how does Kirk cope with losing her baby? She gets drunk and snorts crushed pills at the local bar with Annie Mae and Sue Bob.
Between scenes, director Nitzberg and editor Ben Daughtrey make the fades to black last a few seconds longer than the usual motion picture – making you anticipate, and possibly dread, what outrageous escapade the Whites will be involved with next. And with every one of those fades to black, I had to take a deep breath – sometimes to prepare for what was coming, other times because I forgot to breathe while watching what had just transpired.
An hour of the Whites’ outrageous antics is plenty, something Nitzberg probably understands. Because after the first 60 minutes of Wonderful Whites, he uses the last half hour to focus on some of the repercussions of their behavior – including crushing consequences for Brandon Poe and Kirk – as well as a death in the family.
The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia is equal parts fascinating, repulsive, and depressing. It’s also a hard film to shake, which is a testament to Nitzberg and, for better or for worse, the Whites themselves. This is the best documentary I’ve seen since Man on Wire, which went on to win the 2009 Academy Award. I hope Wonderful Whites is eligible for a 2011 nomination. Nitzberg – and to an extent, the White family – deserve it.
Is it suitable for your kids?With The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia, you’ll be fascinated as a moviegoer but also appalled if you’re a parent. There’s extensive profanity (sometimes in front of children, and sometimes by the children), rampant drug use, male and female nudity, and bloody crime scene photos of poor souls who crossed the Whites.
Will your FilmMother want to watch it?She may be repulsed by what she sees in The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia, but that’s part of the power of this film. I’d recommend she watch it – if anything (like I mentioned at the beginning), it’ll make her feel better about her own family tree.
The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia
* Director: Julien Nitzberg
* Stars: The wild and wonderful White family, Hank Williams III
* MPAA Rating: N/A
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