I’m still in two minds about this film. On the one hand it is stunning in its art, its visually impressive and well written, acted and directed with performances from Carrie Fisher, Edward Hogg and Owen Campbell that you really can’t fault but on the other hand, once again white trash are made to look dumber, hokier, poorer, uglier and more prone to violence and hate than everybody else on the planet just so the guys from Vice magazine (and films) can feel good about themselves. And being that I come from good white trash stock I always struggle with those portrayals.
Inspired by the story of Appalachian mountain dancer Jesco White and his father D-Ray the story takes some deviations that make me wonder just what Jesco thinks of the whole thing, particularly his martyrdom. While much would seem to be rooted in the truth, the second half certainly veers into its own strange quasi-religious territory that makes for a visual and visceral treat but certainly holds no reality at all. But if I can put my own prejudices aside for a moment and treat this as fiction – the story of young Jesco (Owen Campbell as a young un then Edward Hogg) is the story of a kid with no future, living well below the breadline in the Appalachian mountains who is hooked on ‘huffing’ – be it hyperventilation, lighter fluid, gasoline – whatever he can get. The addiction soon lands him in reform school where the violence meted out by the guards and the other kids only pushes him further into himself, ultimately causing him to be placed in an asylum. His father D-Ray, (Muse Watson) a local legend and master in the art of mountain dancing (essentially hillbilly tap dancing), has tried to give him some tough love and instill the dancing spirit into him but it isn’t until D-Ray meets an untimely death that Jesco decides to devote hisself to the art of mountain dancing and armed with his daddy’s shoes hits the road. He meets the love of his life Cilla (Carrie Fisher), dances in every dive he can find, suffers madness, jealousy, a hot chilli blowjob and is basically a loose (dancing) cannon who can’t quite give up his addictions. When his daddy’s killers are released from prison things do downhill fast. I won’t give away the ending but there’s some self mutilation/religious psychosis involved, I will tell you that much.
Visually this is a treat, the film is washed out and bleak and dirty looking, the flashbacks at times resemble old vhs tape, crackling with age, there’s almost a documentary feel especially early on and though the violence is for the main part, stylized in that art wank fashion that makes people feel better about themselves for watching it, it is still visceral enough to make its point. I did enjoy the film once I got over my prejudices about the film makers prejudices and I can understand why it has done so well at the film festivals – it is a stunning film and it will leave you thinking but I just wish they’d find someone else to pick on. Crackers have dignity too you know. I must mention the soundtrack too, with the likes of Hasil Adkins, The Carter Family, Ozark Mountain Daredevils and more besides, the music was as much a part of the film as the visuals… absolutely brilliant use of sound and song… hell, you know what? I take it all (almost) back, this is a fucking superb movie but those feckers from Vice need to find a new target. One day they’re going to laugh at the wrong guy.
White Lightnin’ is availabe on R4 DVD from Madman Entertainment.