Thursday, January 22, 2009

White Lightnin'

Dominic Murphy | 2008 | 84 mins | UK

White Lightnin' might be the very best film at Sundance this year. Based loosely on the story of Jesco "the Dancing Outlaw" White, the film uses the Appalachian step dancer's real life as a jumping off point to tell a surreal and lurid story of vengeance, heartbreak and murder.

The real Jesco White (played here by astonishing relative-newcomer Edward Hogg) has been the subject of two documentaries that followed his attempts to follow in his father's famous mountain dancin' footsteps, while battling his own depression, drug addiction and the brutal poverty that affects so much of rural Appalachia.

In White Lightnin', we meet Jesco when he's just a little boy, so wild that his daddy has to handcuff him to a cot in a shack on their rundown property to keep him from stealing lighter fluid from the general store in order to get high. In and out of reform schools and insane asylums for most of his youth, Jesco was headed down a dangerous and tragic path when his father D-Ray decided to teach him the art of mountain dancing, a frenzied tap style that's accompanied by wild banjo music.

When his father is murdered by a pair of drunken rednecks, young Jesco puts on his shoes and taps around the countryside, getting drunk, getting into bar fights and ultimately falling in love with a woman (Carrie Fisher) who he describes as being "twice his age and half his size". He finds the married stay at home mom so beautiful he nicknames her 'Cilla, after Pricilla Presley, the most beautiful woman in the world, naturally.

'Cilla leaves her family to be with Jesco, but of course his tortured heart can't reconcile itself with the fact that his daddy's killers are still out there somewhere roaming free, so after a brief attempt at settling down to family life, his demons begin to resurface, threatening to destroy his entire world. Jesco goes to blood curdling lengths to attain the revenge and redemption he needs to set himself free of the devils that run through his blood.

Be warned: mountain dancing and glue huffin' is all fun and games, but I cannot overstate how deeply disturbing and dark this film becomes in the final act. Shit gets seriously fucked up. An incredibly unsettling journey into the heart of darkness from a first time feature director. I look forward to much good work in the future from these young Brits.

Bonus: a soundtrack full of Hasil Adkins songs. Nothing could compliment this story better.


aaron said...

I am so looking forward to this. Missing it at TIFF is a regret, and that was even before i knew about the Hasil Adkins soundtrack!

katarina said...

I don't think it played at TIFF, I think it was premiered at Sundance.

I hope this gets some kind of release in Canada. It is terrific / disturbing.

aaron said...

Hmmm. A cursory search of "White Lightnin" and "TIFF" has this site as the first result, so I expect you are right. Maybe I just wished it played here SO VERY HARD that I thought it was true? I've been hearing about this movie for a stupid long time considering Sundance is the premiere.

Michael said...

Sounds great!

What are the documentaries (or is there only one?) on this guy like? Worth finding?

Claire said...

Very worth finding! The Dancing Outlaw is pretty snappy.
He was on Roseanne, even. Got a tattoo on his hand of himself with Rosy and Tom Arnold!

Bill Motley said...

The original 2 documentary program titles are DANCING OUTLAW and DANCING OUTLAW II; Jesco Goes to Hollywood. They are both on the DANCING OUTLAW DVD, which is available from the director, Jacob Young. The DVD title can be found and purchased by using typical search engines.