Sundance giveth and Sundance taketh away.
Much touted coming into the festival for all the wrong reasons, the Dakota Fanning star vehicle Hounddog pretty much exploded on contact at the main critics’ screening, where its end credits were actually hissed at by a substantial percentage of viewers. Faulknerian in intent, Dukes of Hazzard -esque in execution, this Dixie-fried ’50s period piece revolves around the rape of a child (Fanning) and its traumatic aftermath. Aimless plotting and stock Southern characters combine to make this movie less than expected.
Hounddog at first seems to have everything possible going for it: a name cast of acting veterans; an excellent score by Me’Shell Ndegeocello that seamlessly integrates period blues and rock standards; and lush, low-budget cinematography by the great Ed Lachman that is rapturous if a bit inexpressive by Lachman’s heady standards. It’s an overtly serious movie with literary pretensions and a “message” at its core.
But things go awry from the moment 14-year-old Dakota Fanning claims the screen as if by divine right, seizing the movie like a tiny Ethel Merman striding out onto the stage of the Nederlander. This virtuoso child actress is at an awkward age for a young star — the pubescent point of no return during which pint-sized mega-stars, from Jackie Coogan in the silent era to Macaulay Culkin in more recent times, often shatter their careers like a broken voice. As Lewellen, a barefoot country girl with an eccentric family and an Elvis obsession, Fanning is relentlessly, theatrically “on,” whether drawling her way through writer/director Deborah Kampmeier’s meandering dialogue or enacting the seismic aftermath of the pedophilic violation that has received so much advance tabloid interest.
Fanning bills and coos. She whines and cries. She swings those celebrated baby blues around the screen like a pair of klieg lights searching for an escaped prisoner. She even sings Elvis tunes a capella, and sort of pulls it off, although hanging the film’s resolution on Fanning’s ability to emulate blues goddess Big Mama Thornton was a deeply ill-advised choice. Still, it’s not that Fanning has lost her preternatural acting chops. She’s still remarkable, but more than a touch of showbiz brittleness has worked its way in. Watching Fanning emote is like sitting beside a veteran pilot making an instrument-only landing. The technique is impressive, the outcome never in doubt, but the real world—life as it’s lived—seems superfluous to her art.
The missteps are probably due to a professional transition Fanning is destined to handle well in the long run. Other fine actors—David Morse, Piper Laurie and, to a lesser extent, Robin Wright Penn—are less surefooted despite parts they could all do in their sleep. As Fanning’s peckerwood dad, Morse stars as yet another of his leering lowlifes before a bolt of lightning strikes dad on his tractor and transforms him into a kind of redneck variation on Cliff Robertson’s simpleton from the film Charly. Piper Laurie plays the same shrew she’s been performing with slight variations since Carrie in 1976. Her grandmother is a road-show cartoon of that fairytale favorite, the evil stepmom, with hyperbolic line deliveries that go for big drama but generate big laughs. Wright Penn gets closer to the mark as Fanning’s wounded and ostracized aunt, though even she defaults at times in to familiar shtick by bringing the stammering neuroses of a Woody Allen heroine to her white-trash Southern belle. The general sense is of fine actors groping in the dark.
There’s also an ill-advised black character named Charles played by Afemo Omilami who wanders around in the plot handling snakes, singing blues standards and murmuring like a Navajo shaman about people’s “snake medicine” while dispensing folk wisdom in a voice always quivering with noble perseverance. Charles is the liberal equivalent of an offensive racist stereotype, a construct of caricatured African-American nobility worthy of Harriet Beecher Stowe at her most unconvincing.
The scene that has led Fox News to retitle Hounddog the “Dakota Fanning ‘Rape’ Movie” is handled with discretion and taste and is doubtful to cause any real-world outrage beyond the usual cable news bloviation, at least among those who actually see the picture. This film’s problems aren’t moral—they’re aesthetic.
Late in the game, Fanning and Wright Penn have an intimate moment of real connection on a country road. In a simple exchange of glances, so much loss and yearning is communicated that Hounddog finally, fitfully registers the undeniable tragedy it’s going for, of a childhood violated and stolen. The fact that Hounddog can’t sustain this or any other emotion for 30 seconds in a row matters much less than the ghostly suggestion of the drama that could have been.
Empire Film Group
Cast: Dakota Fanning, Robin Wright Penn, David Morse and Piper Laurie
Director/Screenwriter: Deborah Kampmeier
Producers: Jen Gatien, Raye Dowell and Deborah Kampmeier
Rating: R for a disturbing sexual assault of a young girl, and brief sexuality
Running time: 98 min.
Release date: September 19