James Ronald Whitney’s first film is a documentary about the cycle of incest and abuse in his family, a cycle started by his grandfather, Melvin Just. One admires Whitney and his family members for their bravery in telling their harrowing stories; one just wishes this were Whitney’s seventh or eighth film, as “Just, Melvin” comes off as amateurish at times, often ruining what would have otherwise been emotionally gripping moments.
Whitney’s grandmother, Fay, married an abusive man who fathered four of her children. She divorced him and the next day married Melvin Just. Melvin immediately began molesting his step-daughters (including Whitney’s mother), as well as producing two more daughters with Fay, both of whom he also molested.
The only male child, Jim, grew up to be an abuser, too, as well as Fay’s caretaker, though he took that calling to mean that he should let her drink as much as she wants: When she drinks 16 ounces of beer, it brings her weight up to 72 pounds, after all.
Melvin eventually left Fay for a neighbor woman, whose daughters he also molested. They are interviewed, too, as are Fay, Jim, Whitney’s mother, aunts — and Melvin himself.
Whitney’s first interview with Melvin, an hour into the film, is perfect, coming at a time when we have already developed a strong hatred for the man due to the stories we’ve heard. Seeing him merely intensifies that, as he flatley denies every single charge made against him. This is a filthy, grotesque, vulgar man, as purely evil as any movie character ever created.
A technique that betrays Whitney’s inexperience (and perhaps too-strong attachment to the subject) is the frequent use of sound effects and re-created dialogue. When someone mentions that Fay’s first husband shot his dog, we hear a shotgun blast. When someone recalls something horrid that Melvin said, we hear a voice in the background saying the same thing, as if Whitney somehow captured the moment on audio tape.
“Just, Melvin” gives little hope for these particular victims ever overcoming their scars. The idea is to prevent such atrocities from happening in other families. It may also be therapeutic for people who have been through such abuse to see the stories of others. As documentary filmmaking, it’s best when it lets the people tell their stories, which it does admirably.
B (; )