The Orchard, 2015
Director: Bryan Carberry and J. Clay Tweel
Out of 5: 4
One of the ways documentaries are able to get a theatrical release these days are to tell stories that feel like they should be fictional dramas. Examples from recent years include Searching For Sugar Man, about an ordinary American who made a try at a musical career, found no success in America, then blew up into a superstar in South Africa without his knowledge, and this year’s Sundance smash success, The Wolfpack, which centers on a group of teenagers who are cut off from the rest of the world by their dad and film recreations of their favorite movie scenes, almost like a far bleaker Be Kind Rewind. The latest documentary to deal with events budding scriptwriters wish they could have thought of is Bryan Carberry and J. Clay Tweel’s Finder Keepers, which also hails from this year’s class of Sundance documentaries. Finders Keepers succeeds in drawing real pathos and empathy from a real life feud that could be eminently mockable.
In 2007, the North Carolina media had a field day covering the story of John Wood, a man who lost his foot in a plane crash and held onto it in a storage facility. When Wood couldn’t keep up the payments on his storage locker, the grill which was holding his foot was sold to Shannon Whisnant, who decided to get rich by charging people to view the appendage and creating merchandising around a man’s severed foot in a grill. Tensions escalated between the two men, which eventually escalated into a full legal battle over who had the right to the foot. With their deep Southern accents and over-the-top personalities, Wood and Whisnant’s dispute soon resembled an episode of Jerry Springer more than an actual court case, which is almost no surprise given that Whisnant is shown to have been on an episode of Jerry Springer.
While Finders Keeprs utilizes the local media reports to track the surface level of the dispute, it also does a great job of digging deeper into the story to see the real pain and hurt that underlies this seemingly silly argument. John Wood emerges as the central protagonist of the film, a man who has deeply personal reasons for wanting to hold onto his foot and whose struggle with drugs and alcohol drive a deep wedge between him and both his mother and sister. It’s Wood’s personal story that takes up more of the documentary than the shenanigans involving his quarrel with Shannon Whisnant and the documentary is all the more rewarding for it.
Despite focusing primarily on John Wood, Finders Keepers is very careful to make sure that Shannon Whisnant isn’t a one dimensional villain only concerned with profit above all else. Although Whisnant’s bombastic showman character is played for laughs at first, it later takes on a darker tone when revelations from Whisnant’s childhood provide more tragic reasons for why Whisnant desperately craves the cameras and publicity that the foot and ensuing legal battle provide. Without drawing too much attention to itself, the film draws out the parallels and similarities of the two men’s lives and their personal demons.
Finders Keepers is shot in a typical documentary manner, filled with the usual talking heads interviews and archival footage of both home movies and news reports from the years that the argument raged on. The most stylish element of the film are some animated segments which periodically keep track throughout the film of the location of the foot, which are a little bit silly but aren’t overdone to become annoying. While not the most daring documentary from a stylistic perspective, it’s made up for the strength of the characters being interviewed and the care and nuance with which Carberry and Tweel tell their story.
The film does do it’s very best to try to tug at viewer’s heartstrings with two revelations at the end that would seem implausible if they weren’t the truth. It’s an ending that wouldn’t feel out of place as a human interest story that gets pasted on everyone’s social media walls. Yet, despite the relatively weak ending, the filmmakers are successful in taking a story which would seem to provide nothing but cheap laughs and highlighting the humanity and pain underneath it all.
Scott Goldfarb is a dedicated student of the arts, trying to learn more every day.