The Wild & Wonderful Whites of West Virginia; (2009) dir. by Julien Nitzberg, available on Netflix Instant Watch
This documentary follows the infamous criminal and colorful White family of Boone County, West Virginia for a year. While definitely inviting viewers’ laughs and shock at the family’s outrageous “white trash” behavior, I was surprised (and pleased) that the film also showed some sympathy for the family. Bernie Mae, the matriarch, who died during the year, is constantly revered for having raised 34 children (adopting many of her children’s children), and is seen distancing herself from her family’s constant drug use. When a mother is seen going to rehab, the cameraman, though still filming, did so from the car— allowing Kirk the last quiet, personal moment she would get with her young son for a while.
In short, it’s not nearly as exploitative as the famous Grey Gardens documentary always seemed to me (though the filmmakers here still know that audiences are drawn to outrageous stories more than the ones that might deserve it); the Whites are conscious of being on camera and the interest behind the documentary. However, one of the Boone County officials interviewed says early on that, though West Virginians might have the sense of fatalism/hopelessness that comes with a poor, coalmining culture, the Whites don’t represent West Virginia. A kid from West Virginia just got into “M.I.T….M…I….T…. Why isn’t anyone following that kid around with a camera?”