Directed by Bryan Carberry and Clay Tweel
Opens September 25
Maybe someone shared this story into your timeline already: in 2007 the contents of a storage locker in Maiden, North Carolina were auctioned off when their renter, John Wood, stopped paying his monthly bill. At that auction, Shannon Whisnant purchased a barbecue smoker, inside of which he found Wood’s left leg, amputated from below the knee following the plane crash in which his father was killed. Wood had been hanging onto it, hoping to make some kind of memorial to his father from the “skeletal remains”; Whisnant, a flea-market wheeler-dealer, ran with the initial, brief last-item-on-the-local-news notoriety of his find, putting the leg at the center of a dreamed-of business empire and platform to celebrity (complete with “Foot Man” t-shirts and “FTSMOKER” vanity plate on his truck).
Codirectors Bryan Carberry and Clay Tweel rehash the protracted custody battle which ensued over the foot—which culminated, inevitably, on daytime television, with a ruling on Judge Mathis—not Jerry Springer vet Whisnant’s first time on daytime television, but a darker day for Wood, then gibbering, gap-toothed and addicted to drugs and alcohol. With the full participation of both subjects and their families, and plenty of home movie clips and talk-radio appearances, the filmmakers begin with a slick only-in-America tone, using jaunty animations and the Habenera from Carmen for exposition—and frequent subtitles for the heavy accents of their subjects, which is objectively not condescending, though it may seem to be—before playing for sympathy, delving first into Wood’s troubled relationship with his family and self-destructive tendencies, and then the childlike neediness and economic frailty behind the grimily goateed Whisnant’s good-ol’-boorishness.
Hoarding as both social tendency and poignant emotional metaphor has some tradition in regional American nonfiction film—recall Ross McElwee’s friend Charlene holding onto her partner’s ashes in Time Indefinite. But Finders Keepers, in keeping with its gnarly hook, is much livelier, riding high on the energy of its subjects, Southern-friend storytellers, who spin yarns with a drawling self-awareness that does not always prevent them from saying “perspire” when they mean “transpire.” As a subject, it’s the best contemporary tall tale since Hands on a Hard Body—but while that documentary felt suited to the 90s indie boomlet in local-color ensemble quirk (think Waiting for Guffman, Cookie’s Fortune), Finders Keepers, with its nod-along sociological resonances and carefully mapped reservoirs of melancholy, is almost eerily perfect for a podcast.