New Video // 2009 // 86 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Tom Becker (Retired) // October 23rd, 2010
A portrait of America's last outlaw family
The Whites of West Virginia became famous in the early '90s when PBS aired "Dancing Outlaw," a documentary about Jesco White. Jesco was a tap-dancing backwoods guy and hopeful Elvis impersonator with multiple personalities and a long rap sheet; still, his story captured the fancy of lots of people, including, evidently, Johnny Knoxville, who has now produced The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia, a documentary about a year in the life of the entire White clan, The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia. They're wild, alright, but the jury is still out on that "wonderful" part.
The tagline refers to them as America's last outlaw family, and I guess that's as a good a way as any to describe them. But the Whites aren't outlaws in that Bob Dylan/Sam Sheppard/Sam Peckinpah romanticized mythic way. They don't have particularly exciting lives or noteworthy adventures, they're not folk heroes or legends. Their outlawdishness stems from things like their refusal to seek gainful employment -- they're all on SSI, having been declared mentally incompetent from childhood -- and their affinity for alcohol, violence, and prescription drugs, which are consumed in obscene quantities. They're outlaws the way the women on Rock of Love are freedom fighters.
They're also pretty tedious, as far as outlaws go. Bleep the cursing, make the drug use implied rather than open, and you'd have an episode of Springer, Maury, or a basic-cable reality show. Since the Whites don't actually do anything productive, we spend 86 minutes watching them do stuff that's not productive and act out for the camera.
We meet several generations of Whites, from 80-something-year-old matriarch Bertie Mae all the way down to a newborn, whose mother (Kirk White) had a nasty break up with the baby's father: she stabbed him. A bit of drama unfolds here when the child welfare people come along and take the baby away from the hard-partying Kirk, so she checks herself into rehab, though not before snorting lines of crushed-up prescription drugs while in the hospital maternity ward. Another White gets out of jail and then gets married, apparently in a K-Mart or something, other Whites get tattoos, shoot guns in the backyard, drink and drug, and we meet one who moved away from the clan to have a "normal" life and another who's in jail for shooting his uncle in the face. Oh, and they dance. Sometimes.
I guess this is all supposed to be interesting. I guess the Whites are supposed to be lovably dangerous iconoclasts as well as victims and victimizers of the system -- there's some backstory about how the clan's patriarch, a coal miner, countermanded the oppression of the mining industry by having all his kids declared mentally incompetent so they could collect SSI, a tradition that continues today. But while it can be fascinating to watch a train wreck, watching generations of train wrecks just loses steam pretty quickly. There's nothing likable or redeeming about these people, no one to connect to. Director Julien Nitzberg doesn't really seem to have any point of view; he just turns on the camera and lets the Whites do their things, which include ranting -- they all have raspy, six-pack-a-day-smoker voices and thick accents -- and occasionally using the camera as a confessional. The fact that they have so many children -- the Whites, evidently, spawn often and early -- who are on the same path as the adults just makes the whole thing depressing.
Instead of coming off as authentic hell-raisers, the Whites all end up having a pre-packaged feel to them. They're no different from what you'd see on most reality TV shows, hawking the outrageousness of their existence for a little face-time with a camera and whatever benefits the tired RTV genre provides. Since MTV helped finance this, I wouldn't be surprised to see a few Whites turn up on the network, either in their own series or as part of some other show. Or maybe they're just too squalid for prime time.
The disc looks OK, with low-budget but decent production values, a clear transfer, and workable audio, though subtitles would have helped with some of the accents. Supplements include an interview with the director, a chat with the crew (including Knoxville), and a whole slew of White footage that didn't make it into the final product, including stuff from the original Jesco movie.
If sleazy, chatty, lazy stoner hillbillies is your thing, then by all means, run out and get The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia. Since the hicks in this flick made me a little sick, I'm calling it guilty.
Review content copyright © 2010 Tom Becker; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: New Video
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 86 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Bonus Scenes