The Most Hated Family in America, 2006/America’s Most Hated Family in crisis, 2011, Louis Theroux, UK.
I watched these two one hour documentaries back to back and felt a shared review made more sense.
Before I get into these films in detail, it is critical to note something quite essential to documentaries, and Louis Theroux.
I have spoken about documentaries as having two sides (In my SENNA review), one as a non fiction complete work, and the other as a scripted/acted rendition of a non fiction subject. I used the term mockumentary, yet this is technically incorrect, as a mockumentary is a fictional work that parodies an actual documentary. What I should have said was docudrama, which fits the definition I just used precisely. There is also docufiction, which uses scripted fictional parts to spice up an actual documented event or situation. None the less, if we stick with the non fiction through and through, non scripted work, aka, “an actual documentary!” there are a few common ways filmmakers approach them: On one hand we have documentaries where there are no signs of the filmmakers at all, just whatever the story is about going on as if from our point of view. On the other hand is Louis Theroux’s sometimes on camera and voice over narrative form. In between we have documentaries where the subjects are being interviewed but we only see them respond to “invisible” and non recorded questions (presumably from the filmmakers.) Then we have the “visible” verbalized questions we hear being asked of the subjects, finally getting to the presence of the filmmakers within the film itself. Louis Theroux takes the latter to an extreme, by being “in” the documentary nearly full time, and having a voiceover running narrative throughout. I, for one, found this style to be somewhat off putting at first. A few of his documentaries later, I have come to appreciate this style. BUT… It takes some getting used to! Many will find it annoying or subjective to a fault. Yet I have yet to watch any of his work regardless of whether I share his agenda, where he hasn’t treated his subjects with utmost respect and care, even when his agenda is being challenged.
So, straightaway, I would suggest that if you have not seen any of Louis Theroux’s work before this, that you do so, if just to understand his style before you tackle this particular subject matter.
See, there is a level of vulgarity here that is seldom (if ever!) surpassed. The “family” in the title are the members of the Westboro Baptist Church, which is a small extremist cult, led by a certifiable sociopath, who exhibit increasingly inappropriate behavior throughout the two documentaries. I must warn those who have normal developed sensibilities, these people are real, their gauche behaviorisms intended, and they brainwash their young members through fear and intimidation on camera! You have been warned!
The documentary starts with Louis going to visit the church and meet the people behind it. His agenda seems to be simply to understand the why behind the behavior and to coax or at least talk some sense into the younger members. It seems that the “grown ups” don’t wish the simple pleasures of life for their children and it is very clear without the need of fancy editing, that they are warping their young minds with extreme rage and hatred towards humanity (all humanity!). Yet we also get the sense that everyone there, including the elders, are under the influence of the sociopath leader, who mainly hides away in his private chambers while his minions do his bidding. (With some of the young ones… I am talking 7 years old, taking the brunt of the punishment.) When Louis tries to interview the leader, “Grandpa,” as he is called, we are struck by his level of grandiose delusion (Delusion of grandeur). Yet we are also struck (and Louis points out to some of the church members) by his seeming extreme rage and anger, yet it is truly a task to even remotely figure out where it comes from. Leaving him behind, the rest of the “family” has varying degrees of sincerity to the church (as we, as thinking, feeling humans, see on camera!) yet they speak, sometimes robotically, as if they are sincere in the goals of the church… I have to hand it to Louis on this one, I would have run, not walked, away from the church grounds and likely the town, followed by the state, to get as much distance as possible from it all. Even Louis uses a bit of sarcastic humor to get by, and help us as viewers get by as well. Luckily, the church members are so full of themselves that they don’t catch on, and we share a joke on them. By the end of the first documentary, we are left with both the idea that some of the members are hopelessly brainwashed into the cult, while others are struggling with it, so thus we are left with a sort of hope/fear for some of them. I honestly thought I would wish them all dead, but it doesn’t really work that way somehow?
In the second documentary, Louis is greeted with a pithy sort of strange comment about how he is some sort of historic titan among antichrists or similar… then that same sort of searching fake smile thing from some of the members in the first doc. The odd thing is that I get the feeling that nearly all the members were in denial, an existential crisis of sorts. I will share a theory I have that is not new from this documentary but fits: If someone lives an inauthentic life for “too long,” for example they are on their deathbed, and suddenly realize the extent of time they squandered doing something other then they wished with their life, and now cannot “undo” time or come up with new time to do those things, they will have an existential crisis. However, what we do to prevent the crisis is validate what we have done in some way through justification or shared misery. Here, we have a fine example of this in action. Imagine the emotional pain and suffering they are feeling from those they alienate, and years of living for the hate and pain of others. (Actually forget imagining, watch it happen when the woman can’t even put food back in the refrigerator after Louis asks her if it was hard to banish her daughter from her life, she says one thing, but is clearly shattered to the core!). These people are so full of shit because they have to be, its a survival mechanism for their minds. In the first documentary it seemed that they were really devout and serious about their message, in the second it seems they are more robotic, as if they have truly lost their will and just carry on. (NOTE: A few of them, like the fearless leader, are still vile and awful subhuman cultists!) By the end I felt like pulling some of them out of there, getting them far away from it all so that they could finally be real, away from the fear and hate that created that bubble they live in. Again, opposite of what I would have thought before I saw the documentaries! So while Louis Theroux may be some sort of demon beast to them, I found his humanistic approach to dealing with these people to be full of compassion and hope, exactly the opposite the message their church preaches!
OK. Cinematically speaking, I think Louis Theroux has a team he uses, as with most of his documentaries, they are well filmed and polished. The editing seems to try for objectively in what it shows, although I know Louis himself has his own beliefs that he is not afraid to put on screen for us. The people are real, and really messed up to boot! In so much as the story is real life, it is dramatic as we see the young people torn in their hearts between what they are forced to submit to versus what they naturally wish to do as humans. We also see the pain of trying to stick with an impossible commitment at a terrible terrible cost! I may have liked the first part better, but they are both directly good and worth seeing. 3 stars for being good, and bonus for a couple of documentaries that had me feel better about my own humanity at the end. (Unlike the environmental documentaries about how eating meat or driving my car or watching these films is killing us all and wiping out the future for our children, etc. and so forth!)
Perhaps if one were so inclined to dream about some sort of violent or revenge porn, then hey, here we have plenty of fuel for the fire! Other than that, this is about as sexy as getting slapped in the face with a bag of dog poop. 0 on the kink scale. [Now with that said, I also have a theory that the most repressed people end up being the most sexually twisted. With that in mind, as those girls go off to college and get a taste of the real world… yeah, they might just get their freak on! You know, with all the fornication and stuff!]