The eerie discomfort of Hounddog lingers for several days after the screen goes dark. The long, snake-filled grasses of rural Alabama, the pain of a broken childhood, and the surprisingly soulful rendition of the titular Elvis classic sung by a young girl draw us in, inviting us to another time and place. The roads are dusty, the sun is hot, and people pass through the town, but only the locals stay. Most are churchgoers--the wrath of God is a permanent houseguest--and child abuse isn't uncommon. Another time, another place, the film beckons, and so we listen, we enter it.
Hounddog begins as a beautiful, albeit disturbing, story about a child deprived of innocence. We meet Lewellen (Dakota Fanning) in the bushes, where she is convincing her friend Buddy (Cody Hanford) to take off his underwear in exchange for a kiss. "No stupid, you gotta take 'em all the way off," she prods and when he hesitates she taunts, "Well then I won't kiss ya." Lewellen is wild, uninhibited, sexually charged, and totally obsessed with Elvis. Buddy is shy, adoring, and totally obsessed with Lewellen. It's childhood, complicated slightly.
The film attributes Lewellen's free spirit to her discombobulated family. She was presumably conceived by accident and then quickly became an afterthought. Abandoned by her mother, Lewellen is raised by her grandmother -- a religious zealot -- and occasionally her abusive father, whom she adores. She sings and dances to "Hound Dog" for him, and he lets her drink his beer. Their relationship is superficially pleasant, though the large bruise on Lewellen's thigh, and the hip-shaking eagerness with which she struggles to please him, assure us otherwise.
Elvis is Lewellen's soul food, but as Charles (Afemo Omilami), her spiritual, sage black neighbor (read: stock character) whose mother virtually raised Lewellen's own mother, points out, there's more to singing than Elvis. Though Lewellen insists she can't sing the blues because she isn't black, Charles notes that "Elvis is a white boy singing black music, so you a white girl singing black music." Lewellen doesn't get it. "I'm gonna be a big star some day," she responds. Her soulful wails and gyrating hips belie her age; trouble hangs in the air.
And that is when we realize we have been misled.
Director Deborah Kampmeier initially sets out to tell a reverse Eden story. It is a story about a young girl who has nothing but the comfort of Elvis records and her own voice. It is about learning to compensate in a world where you have not been given a fair chance, and where you must accept that the people around you will not protect you. It is about growing up when you are still very young, and it is about learning to find a new innocence on your own fragmented terms. The idea is powerful, but Kampmeier pushes it too far.
Hounddog is both chilling and touching, but it is also predatory. What begins as a slightly artsy tale about a child growing up in a broken home in the 1950s transforms, without justification, into a story about child rape. The elegant simplicity of the film falls away when an older boy rapes Lewellen, and the stakes become impossibly high. How does a little girl reclaim her innocence after she is raped? She doesn't. Learning to sing Elvis with a bit more soul and a little less shake certainly doesn't seem like the answer.
And yet, that is the answer we are given. What works so well in Hounddog is that for much of it, Kampmeier is communicating through symbols and the power of suggestion. We see Lewellen skip down the road like a little girl, and then we see her dutifully care for her father after he is injured in a storm. She is simultaneously aware of the emotional difficulty of her situation and resolute in ignoring the complexity of it. But rape isn't nuanced and it cannot act as a signifier. It is irresponsible to think that it is just something that can be added to a plot line.
Hounddog stirred up controversy at Sundance and has since been blithely referred to as "the Dakota Fanning rape film." It's too bad, because the rape scene has prevented a more interesting discussion from being had. The flaw is in the artistic, not the moral, integrity of the film. Quite simply, Hounddog sacrifices substance for sensation, and that's why it isn't as good as it should be.