Jesco White (Edward Hogg) looks back on his life the way he recalls it, starting with his younger years as a boy in the Appalachian mountains where he lived with his poverty-stricken family. He had a habit of getting into trouble which he never truly shook off, and it began with his addiction to huffing gasoline as a way of getting high. His father, D. Ray White (Muse Watson), was renowned as one of the greatest mountain dancers in the area, and wanted dearly for Jesco to follow in his footsteps, which he did after a fashion, but first there would be a rocky road to success...
White Lightnin' was a fictionalisation of the life of Jesco White, a personality who had come to the attention of the wider world of cultists through a TV documentary from back in the early nineties. It's difficult to know if those who loved that previous film were truly appreciative of what he had gone through and his talent, or were looking for freak show laughs, but in his way Jesco became a celebrity of sorts, so it was natural that eventually a biopic would emerge. Here, director Dominic Murphy and his team take their subject very seriously indeed, so seriously in fact that they were prepared to invent a whole new ending to his life (he was still alive when the film was released, of course).
Therefore a few details about the life story are as authentic as Jesco would claim them to be, yet here he is turned into an angel of vengeance to wreak his personal form of justice on the men who murdered his daddy, and by the end is undergoing a quasi-religious experience, achieving his own kind of salvation by his own hand. Before we reach that, however, we have to be filled in on the tale of how he got to this state of affairs, and his early life gets quite a bit of screen time as the young Jesco (Owen Campbell) is subjected to reform schools where he is much abused by the harsh system and his fellow inmates, and does not necessarily emerge from this as a model citizen, but then, after seeing what he went through you're not surprised.
Everything is intense for Jesco, from the highs of his addiction to the boredom he feels when he is trying to live life on the straight and narrow. He does go into his father's line as a mountain dancer - sort of tapdancing if you've never seen it - and has a good time entertaining the patrons of various bars, something that according to this were the happiest days of his life. He meets his future wife here too, as he legendarily hitchhiked his way into Scilla's car one night planning to rob her, but fell in love with her instead. Scilla is played by Carrie Fisher in a role that might surprise those used to Princes Leia, as she gets a few sex scenes with her much younger co-star, but you can see how the character would be a benign influence.
At least until Jesco throws a fit of jealousy when he notices her talking to another man, and this propels him into one of his dark periods where he pretty much forces Scilla away. Hogg, an English actor, manages the role impeccably and as the focus for much of the time provides a tour de force, yet there's something about White Lightnin' that is hard to like unless you're keen on having your face pushed into the grime that it depicts. It has a strange attitude to religion, as in spite of the characters' apparent godfearing nature, and there are sound clips of preachers preachin' that punctuate the drama, it seems as if God has long left these people behind. The fact that they have been abandoned by their deity has driven those like Jesco, especially him really, round the bend and had them dream up their own style of divine retribution, so the bizarre way the film ends is with him as his own saviour, straining the biopic label to breaking point. You cannot say it's not memorable, though.