Hounddog Review

Deborah Kampmeier’s Hounddog is unfortunately known as the movie where Dakota Fanning gets raped in, despite it only happening in the third act of the story. Because of the “child porn” controversy surrounding the scene, I started the film fully expecting it to be the central premise—a dark tale of a young girl facing the aftermath of a sexual abuse. While this did in fact occur, it’s not until the last throes of the film. Even more unfortunate, however, is that the film barely sustains itself without it. Before the rape, Hounddog lingers about without a real sense of purpose, especially if you know what’s coming; it’s just a matter of counting down.

The film is also more spirited than I initially expected. Set in the late 50s, Dakota Fanning stars as cheery twelve-year-old Lewellen, growing up in rural Alabama with her protective grandmother (Piper Laurie, playing the same role she did in Carrie) and an alcoholic abusive father (David Morse), whom she loves unconditionally despite the troubled girlfriend he shacks up with (Robin Wright Penn). She’s an energetic girl who greets everyone with an abundance of enthusiasm. The film breaks this down slowly, until it leaves her in a frail and vulnerable state, only to be quickly redeemed before the movie’s end.

As a worshiper of Elvis Presley, Lewellen is surprised to find out that her favorite song, "Hound Dog," is not an Elvis original, a discovery that foreshadows further disappointments, when she comes across a band playing Big Mama Thornton’s original version. “She’s singing it wrong,” she remarks. “No, she’s singing it right,” says the kind negro farmhand (Afemo Omilami) who you can already guess will play a life-changing role later on. Because when you see a movie about folksy white people in Middle America and there’s a wise old black man in there, you best believe he’s going to be some mystical savior with amazing insight near the end. They even have a name for this kind of thing—the Magical Negro. After Lewellen is taken advantage of and there’s no one else to really help her, the Magical Negro gives her an impassioned speech that argues the similitude of black people and women (“You’re a nigger, too. You let them make you one. It’s the way people treat you that makes you a nigger.”), a laughable notion that would have seemed more offensive if not for lightning comically striking Lewellen’s father and leaving him a mentally childlike invalid (Alcoholism and a handicap in one character? That should be a double-guaranteed Oscar for David Morse, no?).

Pretty soon Lewellen’s belting blues songs to clear her soul (it’s a bit like Black Snake Moan, but more ambitious and much less fun to watch) and she starts to… Well… That’s it, really. Forget a journey to reclaim herself, Hounddog’s treatment of Lewellen’s sexual abuse is like the Cliff’s Note version of “Surviving Rape For Dummies” with a novel-length preface. In its tiresome effort to develop Lewellen’s character, Hounddog completely forgets to establish just what it is trying to say with this tragedy. Unlike Alan Ball’s Towelhead or Catherine Hardwicke's Thirteen, which examine the curious relationship between young girls and sex and how men take advantage of that, Hounddog simply makes the case that men are misogynists—oh, unless he’s black, which means he’s a woman. Even a 12-year-old boy gets this treatment in the film. The connection to blues music is loose at best, only teased at once until it suddenly becomes her redemption outlet. There’s nothing to suggest that there’s anything to this, except to imply that Elvis’ music represents the white male’s oppression, something I take umbrage with probably more than the rape scene.

The high point of the movie is apparent in the first five minutes: Dakota Fanning’s acting is remarkable, exuding believable confidence playing difficult scenes against Robin Wright Penn and David Morse, as well as displaying surprising comfort slipping into a role that intensifies her sexuality. All the talk about how she’s too young for the role, in the end, was just a lot of hot air, adding vilification that’s entirely defendable to a film that would have earned it without the controversy anyway.

"Hounddog" opens September 19, 2008 and is rated R. Drama. Written and directed by Deborah Kampmeier. Starring Dakota Fanning, Robin Wright Penn, Piper Laurie, David Morse.

Nov
03
2008
Arya Ponto • Contributor

As former Editor of JPP, Arya likes to entertain peeps with his thoughts on pop culture, when he's not busy watching Battle Royale for the 200th time. He lives in Brooklyn with a comic book collection that's always the most daunting thing to move with, and writes for Artboiled.com.

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