Johnny Knoxville, Controversial Whites Stir Up Tribeca
The night before Tribeca's world premiere of The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia, a festivalgoing friend tipped me off to the controversial film with all the magic words I needed: something or other about an "exploitative, disgusting piece of shit" documentary executive produced by Johnny Knoxville. Sold! Less than 24 hours later I'd had a scorching look for myself, with Knoxville and director Julien Nitzberg on hand to help put the debauched hillbilly spectacle in perspective. Or at least as much perspective as one can attain on the drug-scarfing, gas-huffing, rifle-toting, child-endangering exploits of America's most unapologetically dysfunctional family.
On second thought, maybe "dysfunctional" isn't appropriate. The vagaries of contemporary celebrity culture -- say, the canned drama of Kardashians, Hiltons and Osbournes alike -- require a more specific modifier for the gnarled White family tree. "Psychotic" might apply; Nitzberg's eight death threats during a one-year shoot has to be some kind of record. "Self-destructive" is a strong contender as well; after all, no 85-year-old's birthday party is complete without a marathon pot-and-coke binge. But ultimately, the chronicle of Bertie Mae, Jesco, Mamie, Sue Bob, Kirk, Mousey and the rest of their blitzed backwoods clan is nothing more (or less) than numbing.
"Overall I think they see themselves as outlaws, and they don't hide that," Nitzberg explained after the screening. "So far they seem pretty pleased. The cameras were rolling -- they knew that, and they don't give a shit. Sometimes they're kind of proud of that."
Whites arrives two decades after Nitzberg's introduction to Jesco White, son of mountain-dance legend D. Ray White and eventual subject of the cult-classic PBS doc Dancing Outlaw. "Then, 18 years later, Johnny Knoxville calls me up," Nitzberg told Movieline on the red carpet before the premiere. "He had seen that documentary and another documentary I did called The Wild World of Hasil Adkins [about another recklessly proud son of Boone County, W.V.]. We started talking about stuff, and he said 'Well, we should do something new with the Whites.' "
With the partial aid of an MTV Studios deal secured by Knoxville and evil Jackass genius Jeff Tremaine, Nitzberg journeyed back to Boone County to undertake a new family portrait. And bless their hearts, the Whites wouldn't sit still for any of it. Mamie White introduces herself first, peppering her biographical crash course with the shooting incidents that claimed the lives of D. Ray and two of her siblings, then almost gleefully promising that the trouble won't likely end there. Local officials fill in some other blanks; the county sheriff notes the Whites' "fuss, fight and party" mandate with disgusted resignation. Soon Mamie's famous brother Jesco -- the only heir to their father's dancing legacy -- guides Nitzberg on a walking tour of stores and churches he used to rob as a young man.
Then there's ex-stripper Sue Bob, whose son faces prison time for shooting a man in the face -- twice -- before engaging the cops in an overnight standoff. And pregnant, pill-snorting Kirk, who counts her failure to land a knife blow in her ex-lover's neck among her biggest regrets. And Kirk's brother Derek, who introduces viewers to the "Boone County mating call" of rattled prescription drug bottles. And Mousey, who celebrates her release from prison by hunting down her estranged husband. And all of their own kids, of course, the new generation for whom vice and unacccountability are lessons as imperative as learning to count.
Nitzberg graphically outlines the Whites' lifestyle, an armed-and-dangerous 24/7 party that no outsiders dare cross. The director is especially hands-off, rolling tape on cocaine abuse in one corner of a room while toddlers frolic in the other. Car passengers swig beer, drug deals are enacted. In the film's most genuinely shocking sequence, Kirk hoovers lines of crushed painkillers while her hours-old infant daughter sleeps 10 feet away in a hospital bassinet. She'll later be claimed by the county's Child Protection Services, prompting Kirk to rehab.
And that only occurs after a family bender that pushes the film into its own hangover. While Whites possesses almost no narrative arc beyond its string of depraved vignettes, its first half does yield a robustly guilty novelty. Pop anthropologist Hank Williams III provides songs and commentary, and the Whites' frontiersman outrage is accessible and even affecting for a while. But their pathology of entitlement -- to government money, impunity, even invincibility -- catches up with the audience before it catches up with the family. Several Whites attribute that state of mind as a backlash to the exploitation of the state's coal industry, but even so, victims begetting victims is hardly grounds for folk heroism.
Not that they'd care anyway. "Coming into this world is nothing, going out is nothing," Mamie says in closing. "But at least the world knows who the fuck we are." It's a vividly nihilistic counterpoint to the reality-TV era, or at least to a culture that handsomely rewarded Knoxville's Jackass crew for indulging its own taste for extremes. "They never knew he was our producer," Nitzberg said Saturday. "As soon as people knew that, they would do stupid--" There he paused, remembering the family he was describing. "Or even less reasonable things than they usually would. We wanted them to do the less reasonable things they would normally do, not the ones they would do trying to impress him."
Which leaves it to you to be impressed, I guess. Screening twice more at Tribeca and a lock for eventual DVD (and possible limited theatrical) release, Whites is really only as wild as its packed houses' word-of-mouth. For this viewer at least, "exploitative, disgusting piece of shit" was as hearty a recommendation as they come. But wait and see if the reality -- more akin to "cruel, bipolar slice of life" -- isn't the one that makes or breaks this film's reputation.
Additional reporting by Tara House