James Roland Whitney's documentary about his family's legacy of child abuse is so lurid the tone threatens to overwhelm the material, particularly the allegation that his step-grandfather, Melvin Just, literally got away with murder. But it's a fact that Just served eight years for child molestation and was suspected in the murder of county nurse Josephine Segel; Whitney's mother, Ann, her three siblings, two half sisters and four step-sisters are clearly damaged. Ann attempted suicide repeatedly while Whitney was growing up; he studied dance and music and later competed on the 1980s TV game-show Body Language and talent contest Star Search. As an adult, Whitney delved into his family's miserable history, interviewing his aunts, uncle and step-aunts about their childhoods. With the exception of Whitney's mother and aunts, twins Jan and Jean, they're are a sad collection of life's casualties. Marginally employed Uncle Jim, whom Whitney says molested him as a child, lives in a trailer with his frail, failing mother, Grandma Fay, and tried to persuade his half-sister, Jerri, to become his live-in lover. Melvin Just was Fay's second husband, stepfather of Ann, Jan, Jean and Jim and father of June and Jerri; Just left Fay for a neighbor named Vernise, who had three small daughters: Pambi, Denise and Bobbie. June and Jerri are both alcoholics who live in the back of their cars. Pambi, who was born with congenital hip, knee and foot deformities, is withdrawn and sad; Denise and Bobbie say they saw Just kill county nurse Josephine Segel after she paid a surprise visit to their home and caught Just in bed with Denise. Jenise, Vernise's youngest daughter and her only natural child with Just, seems the best adjusted of her family; she lives in a trailer with her boyfriend and two children, Clarissa and Frankie. All have histories of alcohol and/or drug abuse; most have attempted suicide and struggle with violent fantasies rooted in deep, poisonous rage. Whitney holds off introducing Just himself for nearly an hour; even as a fat, wheelchair-bound old man, he radiates malevolence as he denies everything. The film concludes with his funeral, which conflicted emotions turn into a sad, sorry spectacle. Whitney's willingness to exploit his family's misery is troubling, and his methods sometimes faulty, particularly the decision not to identify family members with onscreen supertitles keeping nine sisters straight is difficult, especially at the beginning. But the film's train-wreck appeal is undeniable.
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- Released: 2000
- Review: James Roland Whitney's documentary about his family's legacy of child abuse is so lurid the tone threatens to overwhelm the material, particularly the allegation that his step-grandfather, Melvin Just, literally got away with murder. But it's a fact that J… (more)