||Deborah Kampmeier’s film set the Sundance Festival ablaze last year for entirely the wrong reasons. Viewers didn’t acclaim its brilliance as a work of cinema or its deep insight into human nature. Instead they whispered about how shocking it was to watch petite Dakota Fanning get raped. And now that “Hounddog” is being released, the shock is still there.
So it should first be said that the sequence is in fact treated with great delicacy and discretion. It’s powerful but not sensationalistic, evoking the emotions that Aristotle would have recognized—pity and terror. It would be difficult to imagine anyone seeing it as prurient.
And Fanning in fact is remarkably fine not only in that scene, but throughout—unlike Macaulay Culkin and others of his kind, this girl can act, and carry a picture pretty much on her own. So it’s a pity that the film as a whole isn’t really worthy of her.
“Hounddog” takes us deep into Tennessee Williams “Baby Doll”—or better yet, Erskine Caldwell “God’s Little Acre”—territory where precocious Lewellen (Fanning) lives with her widowed father (David Morse), whom her maternal grandma (Piper Laurie), a stern religious zealot and generally cranky old lady who lives down the road, dismisses as a sinner for his antics with women like an enigmatic visitor (Robin Wright Penn). Lew spends her carefree days alternately frolicking with her little friend Buddy (Cody Hanford)—whom she induces to show her his “thing” in return for a kiss—and singing the songs of her idol Elvis Presley to the delight of her dad (she hopes to hear the young King in the flesh at an upcoming concert to which Buddy promises her a ticket).
But a series of disasters shatter the sultry but Eden-like atmosphere—the metaphor hammered home by constant scenes of snakes slithering about. Lew’s father is struck by lightning and turned into a drooling idiot unable to care for himself. A visiting rich girl who calls herself Grasshopper (Isabelle Fuhrman) comes between her and Buddy. And, most horribly of all, the milkman (Christoph Sanders), a pimply youth, casts a lustful eye on Lew, and uses her desire to see Elvis—and the unfortunate Buddy—to have his way with her.
And that’s not all the melodrama stuffed into this ninety-odd minutes. Another thread involves the identity of the strange woman Lew’s father had been sharing a bed with before she took a sudden powder. And acting as the girl’s principled savior is that age-old cliché, the wise black man—in this case avuncular Charles (Afemo Omilami), a horse handler with a deep knowledge of serpents (an especially heavy-handed touch) who introduces the violated girl to the original version of the blues music that her idol Presley has made palatable to whites. The little lady must literally learn to sing the blues in order to survive what she’s suffered.
It’s hard to take this wild mixture of sledgehammer symbolism, period Southern Gothic, race-conscious uplift and cautionary coming-of-age parable seriously, despite Fanning’s remarkable poise. Her fellow cast members don’t help. Morse is a fine actor, but he’s at a loss with this role, especially in the latter portions of the story (initiated by that lightning-strike, which is absurdly low-tech). Laurie is just reprising her role as Mrs. White to the extent that you half-expect Lew to develop telekinetic powers and wipe out everyone in the end. And while Omilami does the long-suffering but proud bit decently enough, Penn can do little with an opaque, underwritten part.
“Hounddog” has a spare but effective look courtesy of a trio of cinematographers (Ed Lachman, Jim Denault and Stephen Thompson) and a moody blues-based score (by Me’shell Ndegeocello) that still can’t blot out the innumerable renditions of the title song that punctuate the action. But neither they nor Fanning are enough to make up for the overwrought plot turns and unwise stabs at mystical significance. It ends up a mongrel of a movie, and one that despite that one infamous scene doesn’t have much bite.