To make “The Wild & Wonderful Whites of West Virginia,” director Julien Nitzberg spent a year filming a real-life West Virginia hillbilly clan.
You simply will not believe what he’s come up with.
Initially this documentary is hilarious and appalling, a sort of real-life “Beverly Hillbillies” on cocaine ... or maybe a “Jackass” in which the outlandish stunts are real human lives.
The Whites walk, talk and behave like a parody of white trash cliches. They’re rarely without a bottle of beer or a smoldering joint. They believe in marriage but not monogamy. An alarmingly high number of them die violently.
They make the meth cookers of “Winter’s Bone” look positively industrious.
The local authorities report that a handful of families in Boone County account for 80 percent of the crime, and that the Whites are the worst of the lot. Family members have no jobs but always seem to have money. A t one point Nitzberg’s camera follows a grandmotherly type (hard to know if she’s actually a grandmother — women wither early in these parts) as she and the kids buy a batch of pills for $8 each and sell them down the road for $10 a pop.
That Nitzberg was able to get this and other unflattering activities on video suggests just how completely he could insinuate himself into the lives of his subjects. In a making-of doc his colleagues joke that they half expected the director to be shot and/or impregnate one of the White womenfolk while making the film.
We see family members fighting, partying and parenting (sort of). In one priceless scene a White mother suggests to her hyperactive kid that he should draw the line at five soft drinks.
But just when we’re ready to view “The Whites” as sneeringly exploitative, the film takes a turn for the serious.
Child services seizes one White woman’s newborn, finally forcing her to go into rehab. Before entering the program she bids a tearful farewell to her young son, who wears a garish Halloween mask through the entire episode. (Is he crying in there? Bored?)
A teenage White is sentenced to 44 years in prison for firing three bullets into a neighbor.
A foul-mouthed matriarch describes herself as a believing Christian who knows she’s going to hell. That’s OK, she says, since she’ll be with family.
And in Jesco White, a tap-dancer/rapper made famous in the underground film short “Dancing Outlaw,” this film has a riveting focal point.
Jesco is a natural-born poet with a hypnotic speaking voice that somehow elevates the cadences of mountain talk into pure art.
“The Wild & Wonderful Whites” is deliberately outrageous — much of this movie will be absorbed in open-mouthed awe — yet it never denies its unconventional subjects their humanity.