In rural Alabama in the late 1950s, a spirited young girl, Lewellen, struggles to rise above the repression that surrounds her. Lewellen lives with her stern religious zealot grandmother, Grammie, but spends most of her time down the hill with her much-adored Daddy in his falling down shack. Daddy is wild and rough and frequently brings...
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In rural Alabama in the late 1950s, a spirited young girl, Lewellen, struggles to rise above the repression that surrounds her. Lewellen lives with her stern religious zealot grandmother, Grammie, but spends most of her time down the hill with her much-adored Daddy in his falling down shack. Daddy is wild and rough and frequently brings home a beautiful but troubled woman who has a mysterious history with him and comes and goes when his drink and abuse becomes too much for her. But while she's around, Lewellen's longing heart reaches for her love. Lewellen is deeply talented and finds comfort and safety, as well as a place to put her hurt and rage, in the music of Elvis Presley. It is only the caretaker Charles who can see the spirit in Lewellen and save her soul. He teaches her to use The Blues to turn her tragedy into a gift. Lewellen ultimately finds her true voice, giving her the strength and courage to walk away from her past and into her future.
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You won't be able to hear Elvis Presley's "Hounddog" again without flashing back to the stomach-churning image of a preteen Dakota Fanning being raped in this Southern-fried morality tale.
Controversy has, ahem, dogged director Deborah Kampmeier's 1950s-era coming-of-age story for obvious reasons since its lukewarm reception at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival. Police in North Carolina--where the Alabama-set Hounddog was shot--even investigated whether the sexual assault of Fanning's precocious 12-year-old Elvis Presley devotee broke local child pornography laws (it didn't). Kampmeier has reedited Hounddog since its Sundance premiere--hence the delay getting the film into theaters--but she's retained the scene that will likely be among the most discussed, dissected and unjustly condemned this year. Fanning's Lewellen isn't raped until an hour into Hounddog. By that time Kampmeier's established Lewellen as a wayward young girl desperately in need of a parental role model. Her mother died years earlier. Her loving but oft-absent Daddy (David Morse) disappears for days on end, leaving her with her Grammie (Piper Laurie) or one of his girlfriends, such as the visiting "Stranger Lady" (Robin Wright Penn). Then Daddy's struck by lightning. Money was tight before Daddy's accident; now that his injuries have rendered him unfit to work and reliant upon Lewellen to take care of his needs, there's nothing coming in. So Lewellen--who seeks solace in the songs of Elvis Presley--is willing to do almost anything to get her hands on a ticket to see her idol in concert. And that's when things go from bad to worse …
Wasn't it only a matter of time that Fanning, the most talented child actress working today, would attempt to tap her inner Jodie Foster? And it's evident during the first few minutes we're in Lewellen's company that Fanning's as capable portraying emotionally fragile characters as she is spreading light and joy in Charlotte's Web or Dreamer. "I'm going to kill my daddy one day," Lewellen says with a coolness and confidence that sends shivers down your back. Fanning effortlessly acts beyond her young age, though this also means her renditions of "Hounddog" too sexualized for comfort. Not that it's Lewellen's intention to be provocative or Kampmeier's goal to turn her into Lolita. But it's easy to see how her behavior attracts the wrong kind of attention. During the rape scene, Kampmeier keeps the cameras on Lewellen's face. It's terrifying to watch as Fanning struggles and screams. After the rape, Fanning communicates a silenced Lewellen's intense pain in an eloquent and subtle way that allows you to empathize with her. Too bad Fanning's let down by Morse and Wright Penn. Then Daddy's struck by lightning. Money was tight before Daddy's accident; now that his injuries have rendered him unfit to work and reliant upon Lewellen . At first, Morse promises to offer a study in parental neglect. But after Daddy's accident, he laughably turns into "Simple Jack." Looking tired and downtrodden, Wright Penn fails to give her "Stranger Lady" any mystery, tipping us off that she's not the stranger she's made out to be.
Knowing Lewellen's fate in advance puts you on pins and needles as you prepare yourself for the inevitable. It's not something anyone wants to watch--there are fewer things more sickening than the sexual assault of a defenseless child--but Kampmeier deserves applause for handling this disturbing event in a delicate but purposeful manner. The act is brutal enough in itself that Kampmeier can cut away from it as quickly as possible and still achieve her goal of establishing the rape as the catalyst for Lewellen to find her true voice. Still, you sit through Hounddog eyeballing every man or boy Lewellen encounters--Presley excluded--with suspicion, which distracts from the compelling events that unfold before the rape. Afterward, you can't help but feel Kampmeier'
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