Monday, October 6, 2008
Hounddog is Deborah Kampmeier's controversial film starring Dakota Fanning. Set in fifties-era Alabama, the story follows Fanning as precocious young Lewellen as she tries to rise above her bleak family life through Elvis Presley's music. She lives in a rundown house with her Daddy (David Morse), an alcoholic who is by turns loving and abusive. Her mom passed away some time back. Living just down the way, her maternal grandmother, Grammie (Piper Laurie) is protective and means well, but is religious and a strict disciplinarian to the extreme. Occasionally, Lewellen finds a kindred spirit in a wounded woman (Robin Wright Penn) who spends time with her dad. But the mysterious woman is never around long enough for Lewellen to connect. Her only stable connection is to a neighbor's caretaker, Charles (Afemo Omilami), who tries to foster the child's nascent talent for singing by introducing her to the blues. The controversy arises out of one central scene late in the movie. Hearing of Elvis' upcoming concert in town, Lewellen and her friend, Buddy, try desperately to gather enough money to go. But the price she pays ends up being a tragic one. The young girl is dared to perform an Elvis song for an older boy who promised to pay money for her performance, but subsequently rapes her instead. Kampmeier (Virgin) seems to be sincere in depicting the cycle of abuse that Lewellen is subject to, whether physical from her dad, psychological from Grammie, or sexual from this teenager. But the film's uneven tone often trivializes the emotional devastation. The movie is shot in such a way that one doesn't know whether we are supposed to feel a certain nostalgic affinity for the old South, or horror at the conditions Lewellen lives in. At times, it seems to be trying to echo the classic To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) in its depiction of an young girl's loss of innocence in a Gothic Southern locale. This is no Mockingbird, though. The inverted archetypes are often presented in a ham-fisted way. One example is Charles's assertion that the snake is a dangerous animal that can be exploited for positive use in remedies. This ties into Charles' African American identity. Rather than conforming to the racist views of blacks prevalent in Jim Crow South, Charles is a kind, nurturing man who seems more educated than the whites that surround him, both in the secrets of medicine and the human soul. This overreliance on Charles' mystique has the opposite effect of what I believe the director's intent was. It reduces Charles to a two dimensional figure akin to Yoda rather than a fully-formed human being. There are similar stereotypes throughout the film. Morse's abusive Daddy is reduced to a Lennie-like slow-witted hulk after being struck by lightning(!?). Laurie's Grammie recalls the zealot she portrayed in Carrie (1976), albeit a much milder version. The mysterious woman played by Penn is a cipher, hollow on paper with only the emotional complexity that an actress like Penn brings to the role. A sure sign of the lazy writing is the lack of an attempt to even name these characters. One could argue that they represent archetypes. But it really just smacks of trite cliches. Dakota Fanning's performance is excellent. She is engaging, and sympathetic in what is her first mature role. The now teenage Fanning may have been attracted to the character by her desire to expand her career opportunities. But I suspect that viewers will find it difficult to see their favorite child performer in such harrowing circumstances. Jodie Foster had some success transcending her child actress persona by playing an underage prostitute in Taxi Driver, but she was only a featured performer, not the star. This let viewers off the hook from feeling like voyeurs to an inherently lurid spectacle. And truthfully, even Foster had to drop out of the limelight for awhile to reset viewer's perceptions of her. Hounddog would be a tough sell under normal circumstances, but it's an even tougher one given its many flaws. Hounddog is currently in limited release and will be in theaters across the country on October 10th. Still provided courtesy of Empire Film Group.