Sleeper of the Week takes a film that only few critics have seen and shines some light on it.
The story of “Finders Keepers” is simple: In Maiden, North Carolina, two men battled over the ownership of a severed foot of an amputated leg. One man, John Wood, was the biological owner of the leg that the foot comes from, but ditched it in a smoker after not being able to preserve it, and the other, Shannon Whisnant, bought the grill with the foot already inside of it. This dispute eventually led to an appearance on “Judge Mathis,” and minor celebrity for both men. A selection at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival and winner of Best Comedy at the Traverse City Film Festival, the best part of “Finders Keepers” is that it doesn’t devolve into freak show exploitation and takes seriously the desires and wishes of its two main subjects, capturing them at their most determined and their most vulnerable. Critics responded well to this documentary, with some likening it to Errol Morris’ debut feature “Gates of Heaven,” and how it has an old school, small-scale documentary feel.
More thoughts from the Criticwire Network:
Jeannette Catsoulis, The New York Times
Yet the hicks-at-loggerheads story that was propagated by a snickering news media (and that is grasped, sometimes uneasily, by the directors, Bryan Carberry and Clay Tweel) veils a deeper, more resonant tale of fathers and sons and wounded feelings. And as hilarious graphics follow the limb’s bizarre journey from funeral home to Hardee’s drive-through, from embalmer to possum tree (don’t ask), those feelings push insistently against the desire to mock. Revealing its humanity slowly and a little tardily, “Finders Keepers” finally does justice to its dueling antiheroes, one addicted to attention and the other to multiple substances; one indulged and the other violently abused; one who finds himself and one who becomes increasingly lost. Read more.
Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times
As “Finders Keepers” unfolds and the filmmakers spend more time with both men, initially unseen elements come to the fore, including elements of class, family dynamics and the current American fascination with celebrity. Wood’s father, as it turned out, was a top executive at the Ethan Allen furniture company and one of the most prosperous men in Maiden. When Whisnant calls John Wood “a spoiled brat,” decades of resentment can be sensed in that remark. Similarly, the drug problems that led Wood to temporarily lose custody of his amputated leg caused serious ruptures with his mother. Though the subject matter of “Finders Keepers” can sound morbid and freakish, its true lure is its examination of the intricacies of human psychology and the vagaries of chance. Where Wood and Whisnant would be today if they had never fought over that foot is a question they’ve surely asked themselves, and more than once. Read more.
Mark Jenkins, NPR
Over the course of their property disagreement, the two leg claimers got to know each other pretty well. Shannon calls John “a spoiled brat”; John worked up a wicked imitation of Shannon’s throaty voice. P.T. Barnum would have loved these guys, but they had to settle for an appearance on “World’s Dumbest Hillbillies.” Clips of TV commentary don’t show much compassion for Wood and Whisnant; smirking and eye-rolling are typical. Yet a more nuanced story emerges from interviews with family members, including John’s sister, brother-in-law, and niece, and Shannon’s long-suffering wife. Although the two men are from different worlds, the film presents both as sons of demanding, hard-to-please fathers. Observers suggest John is still battling to please his parents, including the one who’s gone. Of keeping the leg, John’s sister says, “That’s his dad.” Childhood memories and parental expectations can endure longer than flesh — even flesh preserved in a BBQ smoker. Read more.
Matt Singer, ScreenCrush
Tweel and Carberry turn these potential caricatures into poignant and relatable human characters, and the sort of goofy news item that we all share on Facebook without a second thought into a small-scale tragedy. Eventually, the filmmakers also start to examine Wood and Whisnant’s growing fame; there’s an extended excerpt from their appearance on “Judge Mathis,” and a sequence where Whisnant is cast in another reality series and then has to reckon with the realization that the show may have only hired him to use him as the butt of a dumb joke. In doing so, “Finders Keepers” makes some timely observations about our society’s dangerous hunger for celebrity — and about television programming that invites us to delight in the misfortunes of others. It’s precisely the sort of trenchant cultural analysis and nuanced characters that give good documentaries a leg up on reality television. Read more.
Tim Grierson, Screen Daily
Unfortunately, the very thing that Carberry and Tweel condemn — the cheap sensationalism of what is actually a very human drama — undercuts “Finders Keepers.” Although there’s no questioning the compassion the filmmakers ultimately show their subjects, the documentary can be awfully glib in its portrayal of John, Shannon and those around them. For a film that decries the phoniness of reality television, “Finders Keepers” strains in its later stretches to manufacture a neat resolution to its subjects’ storylines. And in general, the interviews with Shannon tend to overemphasize his foolishness, whether through an unflattering camera placement or by going for an easy laugh. Without a doubt the man is dreadfully unaware of his lack of star quality. But because “Finders Keepers” does seek to humanize Shannon, explaining the painful upbringing that made him the stardom-obsessed adult he is, the sincerity of that mission can feel disingenuous when it’s placed alongside some cheap digs at his expense. Read more.