Hounddog

Reviewed by Simon Fink

Sundance Film Festival 2007 (World Premiere)–Along with the dreadful “Weapons,” the over-hyped “Hounddog,” about child rape, has the distinction of being one of the worst films in the dramatic competition. Structurally messy, and burdened by a rambling plot, this Southern Gothic wannabe is written and directed by Deborah Kempmeier, one of the three women (out of 16) in competition this year.

Based on her first, highly acclaimed feature, “Virgin,” which was nominated for the 2004 John Cassavetes Spirit Award (given for movies made under $500,000), there was good reason to anticipate an interesting follow-up, particularly that it deals with such hot-button issues as child abuse, rape, sexuality, and identity.

But, alas, Kempmeier doesn't even get a decent performance from the reliable child actress Dakota Fanning, who has done such good work in other films. Well-intentioned, “Hounddog” aims to show how a precocious girl assumes the courage and the strength to overcome debilitating, insurmountable obstacles. But the movie is so poorly conceived, written, and helmed, that it's hard for us to feel real sympathy for any of the characters, including the girl.

Dakota Fanning plays Lewellen, a bright Southern girl, who manages to radiate splendor and rise above her murky and depressing surroundings. Raised by an abusive father and a disciplinarian grandmother, she finds comfort and joy in music. Obsessed with Elvis Presley, she breaks into his songs whenever she feels like.

In addition to music, being in nature barefoot, and playing in the woods with her friend Buddy bring her moments of happiness as a country girl. Except that what begins as innocent role-playing and sexual games with Buddy deteriorates into something else, much scarier. Soon, in the best traditions of Southern melodramas, it becomes clear that Lewellen is a girl with a hidden, painful past, buried deep inside her.

As writer, Kempmeier is intrigued by the question of whether Lewellen is a survivor who will succeed in pulling out all of resources, spirit, and resilience in overcoming a traumatic event and its aftermath. But her text is clichd and full of stock characters we have seen or read in Southern Gothic literature, drama, and film: Drunken abusive patriarchs, white lowlifes and rednecks, simpletons (idiots), uneducated blacks, and so on. Some critics have complained about the race of the characters wishing it was not so stereotypical. Perhaps.

What I find more bothersome is that the film's clichs extend beyond the narrative to characterize the physical milieu, the woods, the house, and even interiors. There are so many snakes in the movie, that, at one point, some audience members joined the hissing on screen!
In a crucial scene, Charles (Afemo Omilami), Lewellen's protector-mentor, tells her that one of her rare gifts is “snake magic” (whatever that means).

Indeed, “Hounddog” feels as if it were based on the director's memory of reading Faulkner and Lee Harper novels or Tennessee Williams plays, rather than fresh recreation of a more immediate experience of the Southern tradition; I'm now curious to know the director's social background.

As a period piece–the tale is set in the late 1950s–“Hounddog” is also unconvincing. This is most evident in its anachronistic lingo, especialy in the dialogue scenes between Lewellen and Charles, who says things like, “Missy, you have to fill the empty void inside you besides Elvis.”

According to the press notes, no less than three cinematographers, all talented–Ed Lachman, Jim Denault, and Stephen Thompson–worked on the film, so it's impossible to establish who's the most responsible for the film's overall look–and tone.

Speaking of multiple players behind the cameras. If my count is correct, no less than 19 people are described in some kind of executive or production capacity! (See list below).

Of the several mature women in the cast, Robin Wright Penn, who has some touching scenes with Fanning, is the only one who gives a decent performance. But, again, who exactly is Robin Wright Penn Cousin Aunt Family relative In the credits, she's identified as “the Strange Lady,” whatever that means.

As the grandmother, a bloated Piper Laurie renders an unappealing turn that makes her rigid redneck of a woman even less sympathetic than it must have been on page. How can you take her seriously, if she is running around with the Bible and a Whiskey bottle

You can see why Fanning's agent and/or manager have encouraged her to take the role. It truly runs the whole gamut of emotions and behaviors. She is asked to cry, woo, scream, laugh, and even sing Elvis Presley tunes. Not to worry: Fanning is by now an established pro, so “Hounddog,” likely to be be quickly forgotten, is not going to damage her bright career.

After the Sundance Film Fest, the film went back to the editing room, where the filmmakers tried to make their tale stronger, more focused, and more nuanced. They claim that the pressure to meet the Sundance's deadline had compromised their film, which was then more about action and is now more about reaction and emotional texture. However, having seen both versions, the new cut strikes me just as bad as the original one was in January.

Courting Controversy

This much-touted film had already been condemned by conservative religious groups–sight unseen. Some have called for an investigation of child pornography during the shoot. To her credit, Kampmeier presents the rape very briefly (less than a minute), and in decidedly non-manipulative or voyeuristic mode (unlke the torture scenes in Tommy O'Haver's Sundance-premiered “An American Crime”).

After the negative response to the film at Sundance, the marketing campaign changed, and “Houndog” is now accompanied by a statement from Peter Samuelson, Founder First Star, which says: “More than six million children are involved in reports of abuse and neglect each year in America, many of them victims of sexual abuse. We all need to pay attention to this epidemic. My hat is off to Deborah Kampmeier for making the film and Dakota Fanning for taking on this brave role. First Star encourages other responsible filmmakers to use their talents in a similarly responsible way, to raise public awareness of these silent tragedies.”

Credits

Running time: 98 minutes

A Motion Picture Group production in association with Full Moon Films and Deerjen Prods.

Director-writer: Deborah Kempmeier
Producers: Deborah Kempmeier, Jen Gatien, Raye Dowell, Terry Leonard, Lawrence Robbins
Executive producers: Robin Wright Penn, Scott Franklin, Henri Kessler, Rebecca Cleary, Stacey Bakula
Co-producers: Kelly R. Tenney, Kathi Scharer, Gabrielle Berberich, Jim Czarnecki.
Co-executive producers: Sam Froelich, Chris Hanley, Roberta Hanley, Michael Shane, Gary Smith
Editor: Sabine Hoffman
Production designer: Tim Grimes

Cast

Lewellen – Dakota Fanning
Buddy – Cody Hanford
Granny – Piper Laurie
Daddy – David Morse
Charles – Afemo Omilami
Strange Lady – Robin Wright Penn
Grasshopper – Isabelle Fuhrman
Truck Driver – Ron Prather
Big Mama Thornton – Jill Scott

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