It might seem a stretch to expect an insightful documentary from the producers of TV’s “Jackass,” but that would not be giving them enough credit, an adage that’s actually well embodied in their new film, “The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia.”
The subject of the film, which screened at Fantasia 2009, is outlaw celebrity, Jesco White, immortalized in songs by Hank Williams III, Rascal Flatts and others. Jesco first came to fame as the subject of a PBS documentary called “The Dancing Outlaw.” In the film Jesco demonstrated Appalachian tap-dancing, an art form created by his father then passed down to him as the only surviving male heir. The documentary became a cult hit and Jesco has enjoyed a certain white trash celebrity ever since, despite, or perhaps because of, his multiple convictions for everything from armed robbery to attempted murder.
But, it turns out Jesco isn’t the only character in the Whites, a family so notorious that law makers in the area can attribute up to 40% of all criminal activity in their corner of Boone County to one member of their clan or another. They openly deal dope, do drugs, and all have either tried to kill or cut up someone at some point or another. And that’s mostly the ladies.
A shockingly candid look at a lifestyle most of us would consider unimaginable, the film works very hard at riding the line between judgment and ridicule. Interviews with local lawmakers and politicians provide some context for the family’s behavior, a result of inherent fatalism from growing up on the economically disenfranchised end of a mining town.
However, this attempt at adding socio-political perspective actually amplifies the uncomfortably voyeuristic aspects of the film, which ends up coming off sort of like a mash-up of “Jackass” and “Intervention.” As shocking as it is to watch a woman huff drugs in the same hospital room as her newborn baby, the story of the Whites is heartbreaking and eye-opening, but not nearly unique enough.