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by Peter Sobczynski

1 stars

In one of those coincidences that amuse observers, enrage distributors and inspire virtually no reaction whatsoever from the majority of ordinary moviegoers, two films with remarkably similar premises and pedigrees, “Hounddog” and “Towelhead,” are opening on the exact same weekend. Both films are period pieces that follow young girls who are trying to navigate the trials of early adolescence and questions about their own emerging sexuality in a world populated with violent and clueless fathers, absent mothers and so-called friends who are not-so-secretly using them for their own ends. Both films include scenes in which the unconscious Lolita-esque vibes that their young heroines are sending off are responded to with brutal sexual assaults from male characters who are old enough to know better. And finally, both films premiered to much hype at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival, were largely dismissed as unpleasant and borderline exploitative junk that was nowhere near as profound or provocative as they clearly thought they were and are only now getting token releases in versions somewhat amended from the ones shown at their premieres. Not having seen the original cut of “Hounddog,” I can’t tell you if this new version is an improvement or not but judged solely on its own merits, I can tell you that it is a laughably overwrought and painfully symbolic slab of Southern Gothic goofiness that has more bad scenes than you can shake a snake at and too few good ones for its own good and the best thing that I can really say about it is that despite there flaws (and many more), it is still somehow slightly better than “Towelhead.”

Set in the late 195o’s, the film stars Dakota Fanning as Lewellen, a 12-year-girl growing up in a small town that seems to have built entirely on Southern Gothic clichés. There are snakes everywhere (and yes, they are meant to be symbolic), the kudzu grows so thick that it practically slithers off the screen in order to choke anyone sitting in the front row, everyone speaks in portentous phrases (right at the top, Lewellen creeps out the friend she is playing doctor with by telling him, apropos of nothing, “I’m gonna kill my daddy one day!”) and there is even a jovial black guy sitting on the sidelines ready to impart the little girl with some homespun Negro wisdom at the drop of a hat or the dribble of some chaw. The clichés follow Lewellen to her sad and decrepit home life as well, where her daddy (David Morse) is a pathetic and violent drunk who acts like an idiot and who, her mother is long gone and her granny (Piper Laurie) spends her days reminding her granddaughter just how evil and sinful people are--presumably, she is just marking time until Lewellen is old enough to be hectored about the blood and the boys. For a while, this highly dysfunctional clan is joined by Ellen (Robin Wright Penn), a mysterious woman who could be Lewellen’s mother, aunt or sister or who could just be a bit of fun brought home by Dad--then again, since this is a saga of the Deep South, I suppose there is a chance that she could be all of those things. (Just kidding, South--you’re doing great). Of course, it doesn’t really matter what she is because no sooner has the film introduced her, complete with a promise to take the little girl away from her miserable life, than she disappears and leaves Lewellen in the lurch.

The only joy that Lewellen gets in life comes from the music of Elvis Presley, whose rendition of “Hounddog” she impersonates right down to the hip-swaying moments that she aggressive emulates without have any real grasp of the signals that she is unwittingly sending out. Inevitably, in a story like this, it is the very thing that the main character loves most that winds up being the key to her downfall and that kicks in here with the announcement that Presley himself will be coming to town to do a concert. Of course, Lewellen will do anything to go to the show--she is convinced that if she can go backstage and show him her moves, he will sweep her away to Hollywood with him. She and best friend Buddy (Cody Hanford) plot and scheme to get tickets to the show but all seems lost until Buddy convinces her that a friend of his will give them tickets if she shows him her Elvis impression. Unfortunately, the friend turns out to be a creepy older boy whom we have already seen ogling her in a decidedly unsavory manner, even by Deep South standards, and in a sequence that manages to come across as harrowing without coming across as too graphic, he rapes her and leaves her a pale and shaken shell of her former self with all of the excitement and enthusiasm she once possessed seemingly drained away.

As perverse as it may seem to say, it is this sequence, which obviously inspired all of the hoopla surrounding the film in the first place, that is the only moment in “Hounddog” that is genuinely effective and not just because it gives viewers the theoretically transgressive sight of a popular young moppet being sexually violated, a move that even Jodie Foster waited to bust until she was much older. No, it works because it is the only time that writer-director Deborah Kampmeier seems to have had a solid idea of what she wanted to say with this particular project. The rest of the film, to put it politely, is an unmitigated mess. The first hour or so drags along forever and throws in so many pointless distractions, such as the arrival of a snotty little rich girl who sets her sights on Buddy and the tragedy that befalls dear old dad when he suddenly returns and is brought down by a bolt of lightning that turns him into a bigger idiot than before, that those in the audience who know what is coming will find themselves in the decidedly odd position of impatiently awaiting the rape of a 12-year-old girl just to get things moving. And while you would think that the rest of the film would focus solely on Lewellen’s reaction to the attack and how she does or does not find the strength to move on afterwards, we are treated to even more distractions, such as the sudden return of Ellen, Buddy’s forsaking of his best friend for a girl in a pretty dress and an Elvis ticket, Dad’s newfound tendency towards wandering through town stark naked, an infestation of snakes (real and imagined) and the attempt by a kindly black horse trainer (Afemo Omilami) to snap Lewellen out of her funk by insisting to her that she needs to find something to fill the hole within herself--perhaps not the most judicious turn of phrase to use to in regards to a girl who has just been sexually assaulted. Spending time on any one of these diversions would have been pointless and frustrating--to throw all of them into the mix only suggests that Kampmeier had little confidence in her central subject matter and decided to include all the rest in the hopes that we wouldn’t notice amidst all the sound and fury and symbolic snakebites.

Although I understand that Kampmeier has been trying to get this project off the ground for the last decade, “Hounddog” looks and feels as if it had been specifically conceived as a vehicle for Dakota Fanning to shift from standards kid parts to more dramatic material via a “controversial” project in much the same way that Jodie Foster did with “Taxi Driver” and Brooke Shields did with “Pretty Baby.” On one level, it succeeds because she does a fairly good job of overcome the astonishing number of clichés built into virtually every scene and making her character into something that almost resembles an authentic human being. On another level, it doesn’t work because while it shows that she and/or her handlers may have a nose for material that will personally get her all sorts of attention, they somehow failed to recognize that the script was essentially exploitative in ways that “Taxi Driver” and “Pretty Baby” never were. Of course, Fanning is young and ambitious and can perhaps be excused for taken on such a slipshod project in order to demonstrate her range in order to gain future work. What I want to know is what such smart and talented actors as Robin Wright Penn, Piper Laurie and David Morse could possibly have been thinking when they decided to sign on as well--Penn seems as confused about the character that she is supposed to be playing as we in the audience are, Laurie merely offers up a less cuddly variation of the nightmarish mother that she portrayed in “Carrie” and Morse so ludicrously overplays his character’s mental reduction following the lightning strike that I suspect that most people watching him will be immediately reminded of Robert Downey Jr’s speech in “Tropic Thunder” about the perils facing an actor who goes “full retard.”

After the screening of “Hounddog,” the publicist handed all the critics a piece of paper from the producers containing a list of potential “talking points” regarding their film. On it, they explain what changes were made between this version and the one seen at Sundance (according to the sheet, this version is “more nuanced,” roughly 50% of the film has been changed to some degree and adds an ever-so-uplifting scene in which Lewellen’s dad kills her beloved dog) but more importantly, they explain what the movie is about. “This film is a story of triumph and Dakota by taking on this role has given voice to the million of silenced women and girls.” It also comes down on those who referred to the film as “the Dakota Fanning rape movie” by suggesting that anyone who does so is culpable for preventing abused girls for speaking out for themselves. These are interesting points, I suppose, and if Kampmeier had spent more time addressing them in a coherent and cohesive manner within the context of the actual film, “Hounddog” might have turned out to be the genuinely moving and powerful drama that it wants to be instead of the swampy, soapy and inadvertently silly mess that it is.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=15712&reviewer=389
originally posted: 09/19/08 00:00:00
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2007 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2007 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

12/04/09 art POINTLESS! 1 stars
6/28/09 George (DUKE) Dakota is great...so is the soundtrack... 3 stars
11/01/07 fernando excelent 5 stars
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  19-Sep-2008 (R)
  DVD: 17-Feb-2009



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