Short version: Were it not for the Dakota Fanning rape scene controversy, no one would be talking about this boring film.
So you’ve heard all the talk, accusations and screaming about the film Hounddog (or as many spelling-impaired people are writing it: Houndog) screening at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival starring Dakota Fanning but haven’t seen the film. The big question on people’s mind is “Just how outrageous or explicit was that rape scene?”
So you can gauge my answer, keep in mind that although this is a movie & TV website, for the most part I’ve come at stories from the point of view of a parent when it’s appropriate. I do not want every movie release to be Rated G, but on the other hand it drives me insane when bloodless yet intense violence or overt sexuality is aimed at kids.
The scene in question did in fact make me queasy and was sickening, but that was due more to the event than to anything on screen that could be considered even remotely explicit in regards to what was shown of 12 year old Dakota on the screen. If memory serves it looked like it may have been shot in a way where the actor portraying the rapist may never even have been on top of her. I could be mistaken on that point, but that was my impression. There were shots of her feet, hands and of course her face, and the scene was very brief.
Later on I’ll get to what bothered me about the film that I haven’t heard people talking about much. On to the movie…
Hounddog takes place some time in the late 50’s or early 60’s in the rural south. Dakota Fanning plays Lewellen, a very precocious 12 year old. It seems that right from the start the goal of the film is to make viewers uncomfortable as it opens with a scene between her and a boy that looks a bit younger that is her best friend. They’re in the woods and she wants him to drop his pants and underwear for a peek in exchange for a kiss. She talks about wanting to kill her father, which led me to believe that there may have been some sexual abuse going on, but it’s never alluded to again.
When she gets back home to the run-down shack where she and her father live, he is hanging all over Robin Wright Penn (whose character name I don’t recall) and is apparently a new girlfriend. Lewellan is a huge Elvis fan and she loves to sing his hit song “Hounddog” in particular. What is unsettling about that is that when she sings and really gets into the song she tries to gyrate like Elvis in a very provacative manner, sometimes moving like a dancer from a strip club. Seeing an undeveloped 12 year old moving like that is just plain creepy.
The film kind of rambles along and we meet Lewellan’s grandmother (played by Piper Laurie), and some of the black folks in town including Charles, a (too?) wise old soul and fan of snakes, which he uses to create medicine. The very bad guy in the movie is a new milkman in his early 20’s, who comes by Lewellan’s house one day and happens to see her singing a bit of her favorite song with her trademark moves, except this time while lying on her bed. He is the one who eventually rapes Lewellan.
Hounddog suffers from something I’ve noticed in some other indie films: It’s boring and it’s too long. Although it’s filled with gorgeous scenery, the film just seems to go on and on and on. This was yet another hour and a half long movie that felt twice as long. The best thing about the film is Dakota Fanning’s performance. She really is amazing at the range and subtlety of emotion she can convey at such a young age. I only hope that she is one of the very few child actors who survives the transition to adulthood unscathed.
The other thing that bothered me that I alluded to above was that I’ve never seen a 12 year old wearing just underwear in a movie in so many scenes. There were also instances of her lifting her dress to carry fruit or to pull something she’d been carrying out of her underwear. I can only assume the point of that was to show that she was very un-self-conscious about her body, but this doesn’t jive with her constantly wanting to kiss her best friend. That indicates to me that she is starting to enter puberty which I would think comes with an increased sense of privacy.
Is the director saying Lewellan was inadvertantly asking for it through her behavior? I doubt that. Is she saying Lewellen should be allowed to act seductively without fear of being attacked? I don’t know. My answer is obviously that there can be no justification for taking advantage of a child, but that she should be told that certain ways of acting are inappropriate and there are people out there who will respond to that behavior without giving thought to what is right and what is wrong.
I really believe that director Deborah Kampmeier was earnestly trying to bring attention to the subject of sexual abuse of children, but I don’t think showing a 12 year old girl acting seductively and peppering the film with scenes of her in her underwear was the way to go about it.
Those creepy guys who ogle kids underwear ads in the JC Penny catalog will no doubt enjoy this film, everyone else… not so much.