So do you have to like the people in a film to like the film itself? It seems like a ridiculous question—of course not. There’s nothing to like about Jake LaMotta, but Raging Bull is a great film (one of the greatest, in my opinion). But there’s something else happening there; the movie seems to see him more clearly than he sees himself, and feels appropriately about him, and it’s great to look at, and the performances are amazing, and it’s got the Scorsese humor. Yep, Raging Bull was a great movie. Wait, what the hell am I talking about?
Ah, yes. I ask this question because The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia is about such a thoroughly repulsive bunch of people, I wonder if my distaste for the film is just a byproduct of my dislike for them. The Whites gained notoriety back in the early 1990s, when the PBS documentary Dancing Outlaw, profiling Jesco White, became something of a cult phenomenon. It’s exactly the kind of film that you can imagine Johnny Knoxville knowing by heart and quoting with his friends; he’s the executive producer of this follow-up, which introduces us to many members of the extended White clan.
They all live in Boone County, West Virginia (all but Poney, who escaped to Minneapolis); all of them introduce themselves to the camera by explaining their relationship to Jesco, and they’re all… well, I’ll cede my opinion to that of Hank Williams III, who calls them “the true rebels of the South.” It’s a huge clan of thickly-accented mountain folk, who spend their short days and long nights drinking, shooting, fighting, yelling, and getting high—sometimes from weed, usually from grinded-up pills, which they snort like coke (early in the film, young Derek White rattles off a list of meds with alarming precision).
What they don’t do is work; they get by on a variety of entitlements and disability checks, along with what, according to older sister Mamie, is “called the hustle, rustle and bustle. That’s how you get by in the country!” Most of the things they say in the film would be best punctuated by an exclamation mark; in spite of the fact that so many of their lives are mess, you certainly can’t deny that they enjoy a certain zest for living. That often gets out of control, of course, whether it’s son Brandon Poe’s current incarceration for an attempted murder and police standoff (“I just went on a rampage, pretty much”), or daughter Kirk’s confession of how she tried to stab her ex, Dennis, to death (after she tells the tale, she then asks if anyone will see this; you hear the filmmakers hedging, but she actually just wants to make sure Dennis will see it).
Kirk actually has one of the film’s rare moments of insight; after the birth of her new baby, she talks about how she wants better for her daughter than she had. It’s a nice moment whose spell is broken by the next shot, in which she snorts up some crushed pills in her hospital room, in front of the baby. The hospital ends up keeping the baby and turning it over to Child Protective Services. Shocking!
Director Julien Nitzberg invests a lot of time and potential emotional energy in Kirk’s struggle (she decides to clean up so she can get her baby back), but it feels like he’s trying to have it both ways. It’s an example of the film’s schizophrenia: how does it feel about these people? It’s easy to look down at their willful ignorance and hicky voices (“If he ain’t high on drugs, if he ain’t high on alky-hol…”); it’s easy to sneer and laugh. But is the film doing that? Further, it’s such a full-throated celebration of their bad behavior, you wonder if it’s somehow encouraging said behavior. A relative worries that the spectacle of Jesco being who people want him to be “is gonna kill him,” but is a film like this proliferating that notoriety and spectacle?
Knoxville got MTV Films to front a chunk of the funding, and it is certainly cut for an MTV audience, utilizing a slice-and-dice editing style that’s fast-paced and music-heavy (a hangover sequence late in the film is scored with the country tune “Sick, Sober, and Sorry,” and it gets the kind of cheap, easy laugh that a music cue like that gets on The Real World or The Hills). That audience is primarily there to laugh at the funny rednecks and cheer their drugging and drinking and fucking and huffing. So what will they make of the attempts to downshift to genuine emotion in the third act? Of the brief interlude that contextualizes their behavior within the mining town culture? The audience that will be affected by that stuff has probably already walked out.
There is, without question, a train-wreck quality to The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia. As repulsive as these people are, you can’t help but watch as they revel in their excesses. But by the one-hour mark, I had lost patience with them, and with the film. It’s just kind of sad and depressing to spend time with them. And the images that close the film, of the next generation of Whites, are frankly a little terrifying.