Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia

Julien Nitzberg | 2009 | 86 min | US

This is a documentary that makes Winter's Bone look like Oceans Eleven. Dancer and gasoline-enthusiast Jesco White has been the subject of both a prior documentary, The Dancing Outlaw, and a fantastic narrative feature, White Lightnin', but we've seen only a hint of his larger family until now. WWWWV is the film that shakes the family tree to see what falls out (spoiler: mostly pills).

Jesco still has a large presence in the documentary, but it's the women of his family who take centre stage this time. They are very gruff, very entertaining, and tell the story of not just the Whites, but the large number of disadvantaged living in West Virginia. A wealth of threats and drug annecdotes are tossed about as the Whites' explain how they have crept into the wider world of entertainment through their unique brand of dance. Their history is riddled violence and death, but music and dance are always a constant.

The county officials whose commentary is scattered throughout the film like to blame the welfare state and a perceived sense of entitlement on the part of the Whites as the cause of their dysfunction. However, repeated comments by the Whiles betray a total lack of agency felt by the family. Their dialogue is permeated with the conservative religious traditions of West Virginia. They believe they are cursed and continue to be punished for their sins. Where does such a deeply ingrained fatalist view leave a family? Snorting crushed Xanax in hospital rooms and hillbilly bar toilets as though they have no other choice, apparently.

It can be difficult to keep track of who is who and how they are related, but it doesn't really matter. The family is a legend and an archetype whose lifestyle has inspired and entranced musicians and friends. They are very charming in their self-destruction. Obviously the filmmaker was charmed as well, because WWWWV is a very romantic take on their lives.

The documentary ends on a hopeful note which feels out of place and slightly insincere. The feeling one is left with is not that they are going to pick themselves up and meet great success over the rest of their lives; it is that they are going to keep doing what they've been doing for generations and continue being a force in Boon Country. It is not the happy ending the text would like you to buy, but it is a fascinating tale nonetheless. Authentic outlaws are a rare breed. Watch the trailer after the jump.


The Garden Ninja said...

As a native West Virginian, I'm firmly on the "this is hilarious/interesting/significant" side of things, rather than the "omg stereotypes" side. People need to lighten the hell up.

aaron said...

Good to hear from a native who could enjoy it. I've definitely read some outrage from other West Virginian viewers.