Even those with a soft spot for The Dancing Outlaw, the 1991 cult PBS documentary about tap-dancing West Virginian Jesco White, will likely have a hard time warming up to The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia, a feature-length portrait of a year in the life of Jesco’s regionally notorious clan. The enduring comedy and charm of Dancing Outlaw stems largely from the borderline-surrealism of its deranged mountain-man subject, the son of local dancing legend D. Ray White, and a loon whose boogieing skills, opinions on marriage and madness, and bizarre obsession with Elvis make him seem like a fancifully strange fictional caricature come to real life.
While Jesco also appears in Wild and Wonderful (executive produced by Johnny Knoxville), director Julien Nitzberg expands his purview to include the rest of the hell-raising, live-free-and-die-young family, celebrated by Hank Williams III as “the true rebels of the South” for living an unrepentant existence of partying, crime, and mischief. As far as people-behaving-badly docs go, the disreputable film has its mild pleasures, with the sheer brazenness of the White clan’s actions—decried by local public defenders, prosecutors, and sheriffs, and typified by Jesco and burly sister Mamie turning their mother’s 85th birthday party into a coke and pot-fueled bash—casting the plot-less proceedings as a breakneck, amusing R-rated Jerry Springer nightmare.
Wild and Wonderful is smitten with the redneck brood, but its nonjudgmental stance leads to a sobering warts-and-all depiction of their rampant “fun,” exemplified by husband-slashing Kirk White snorting lines of crushed prescription pills in a hospital room mere moments after putting her newborn daughter to sleep. Kirk’s decision to head to rehab after the state confiscates her baby, as well as the story of a younger White awaiting sentencing for repeatedly shooting his uncle in the face and then engaging in an armed standoff with the police, are merely two examples of the dark side to the family’s hell-raising lifestyles.
The argument is advanced that their misconduct stems from the coal-mining industry’s exploitation of their ancestors, as well as the hazardous profession itself, which is so dangerous that one’s mortality is thrown into sharp relief and, in turn, engenders a reckless, devil-may-care attitude. No doubt such analysis holds a bit of water, but it nonetheless falls far short of affording an exculpatory explanation. As a result, it’s nearly impossible to feel empathy for, or remain amused by, the Whites—living on the dole thanks to D. Ray’s shrewd decision to have them all classified as legally insane—and the destructive, entitled irresponsibility which they proudly pass down to their kids. A mixture of pity and disgust, however, is elicited just fine.