"Come in this world with nothing, leave with nothing. But at least the world knows who the fuck we are."
It's debatable as to exactly how much of the world "knows who the fuck" the White family of Boone County, WV is, and director Julien Nitzberg's new documentary isn't likely to do a whole lot to change that, but one thing I can say is that now that I know about the Whites I'm unlikely ever to forget them.
Their "Wild and Wonderful" story starts with patriarch D. Ray Boone who was known both as a mountain dancing legend (limited footage in the film, some available on YouTube, justifies the "legend" label) and a local terror. After D. Ray's murder (one of many that plague the White family), his son Jesco took over his legacy, both as a performer and as a criminal.
Jesco, previously the subject of the PBS documentary "Dancin' Outlaw," is now the de facto head of an abundantly fertile family whose relationships are so Byzantine that even a family tree provided by Nitzberg does little to help. Suffice it to say that there are a lot of Whites, none of whom appear to have jobs, and most of them seem pretty proud about being "clever" enough to live on the public dole for all these years. Working the system is a badge of honor when you feel like "the man" is just out to screw you. And this model of the "working" life includes prescription drug scams (What's the Boone County mating call? Pills rattling in a bottle), general fraud, and the occasional domestic assault or murder. The latter, however, they don't get away with and a few of our "Wild and Wonderful" Whites are in jail waiting for sentencing.
Nitzberg and his crew spent parts of a year with various members of the White family, and it's fair to ask whether the final product qualifies as an exploitation film. The involvement of Johnny Knoxville as producer would suggest that the answer is "yes" as do a few moments in the film where we're cued to laugh at some of the real-life tragedies that befell both the Whites and their victims. An early sequence in which Mamie White, D. Ray's oldest child and the most powerful family personality aside from Jesco, relates the various ways in which her brothers met with violent deaths plays like a grotesque recounting of redneck jokes: brother Dorsey shot himself while trying to prove his gun wasn't loaded. Har-de-har.
Yet the film also provides a voice to the various members of the White family who don't exactly emerge as likable characters, but prove to have complex personalities as well as a natural affinity for the camera. If you've ever laughed at any of the unwitting "guest stars" on "Cops," you might be forced to think twice about your condescension. At the very least, the film will not allow you to dismiss them as caricatures.
If Nitzberg exploits his subjects, it may be in the questionable effort to cast the film as a celebration of outlaw rebellion. The Whites aren't exactly the modern equivalent of the James Gang, but they certainly live life out loud, and Nitzberg punctuates this with a whole lot of bluegrass and rockabilly music. Hank Williams III, a friend or perhaps a hanger-on of the Whites, contributes what could be the family theme song: "Punch. Fight. Fuck."
We meet quite a few Whites, some of whom fade in and out of the story when forced to go on the lam, but the movie gains its force from the articulate anger of Mamie (for you art-house aficionados, she could well be an Appalachian Vanda Duarte) and from the increasingly sympathetic Kirk, one of Jesco's many nieces. Kirk has her own violent past, but when her newborn baby is taken from her by child custody, her tears are genuine, and it's hard not to feel for her even if you think the state might be doing the right thing. No caricature here.
Nitzberg offers a few slivers of hope in the midst of this desperation. Poney, another of D. Ray's sons, escaped both Boone County and the White legacy by fleeing to Minnesota (to escape a drug charge) where he appears to have crafted a new life for himself. He even has a full-time job. Nitzberg's attempt to end the film on a high note, with Kirk checking herself into rehab, is a little less convincing, and a teary conversation between her and her son feels staged, but moments like this at least prevent the film from wallowing in poverty porn.
The film is presented in a 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer. The transfer is adequate for a film that isn't going to win any style points. It's strictly functional.
The DVD is presented in both Dolby Digital 2.0 and Dolby Digital 5.1. Some viewers might trouble with the fast-talking West Virginia accents, but I found the dialogue to be clear and didn't miss the presence of subtitles.
The film is accompanied by a commentary track with director Julien Nitzberg and producer Johnny Knoxville. The disc also includes 80 minutes of Additional Scenes (including "the lost Jesco tapes"), a "Making Of" featurette (11 min.), a brief interview with the filmmakers (3 min.) and a perfunctory promo piece from the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival where the film debuted.
I don't quite know what to make of "The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia," but two weeks after watching it, I'm still thinking about these characters. As one of the exasperated law enforcement officials in the film observes, "The Whites just have that kind of charisma." I'm not sold that we should celebrate them simply because they live life by their rules (of helpless entitlement), but damned if they aren't a fascinating bunch. And the film fulfills one of the more salutary roles of a documentary: it opens a window onto a world most people will never otherwise see.