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After hearing about the controversy, I thought the film was going to be a dark, sexually charged coming of age film. And to a degree it is but not to the degree the buzz had led me to expect. The darkness comes late in the film and the film is ultimately about overcoming adversity and getting a chance at redemption and starting over. Set deep in the South in the 1950s, Fanning plays Lewellen, a wild child whose drunken father (David Morse) provides neither love nor supervision. But Lewellen finds joy in imitating Elvis and doing renditions of songs such as Hound Dog, complete with swiveling hips. She strikes one as both sexually precocious and something of an innocent. But it's her obsession with Elvis that eventually leads to an abusive sexual encounter with a man who promises her tickets to an Elvis concert in exchange for a private performance of Hound Dog.

Photo caption:

Hounddog (Empire Film Group)

The first half of Hounddog is drenched in honey-colored images and humid southern landscapes. There's a seductive lyricism in Kampmeier's visuals and compelling quality to Lewellen's untamed spirit. The film evokes a similar mood to the recent Black Snake Moan . But Kampmeier's script quickly falls back on a lot of southern cliches ranging from a white trash dad to a Bible-quoting, God-fearing grandma to "Magical Negroes" who make everything all right with a bit of hocus-pocus and some good old fashioned blues. There's even some heavy-handed Biblical symbolism involving snakes and the Garden of Eden. The grace and ease of the early part of the film is overrun by a heavy-handedness in the second half.

In the end, the film doesn't merit the controversy it generated. The rape scene is well handled in terms of not being exploitative and in suggesting far more than it shows. It's upsetting but then it should be. But the controversy seems to have overshadowed what is essentially a wisp of a film. The whole film rests on Fanning's slight shoulders and while her performance is often impressive, it's not enough to carry an entire film. In addition, Fanning strikes me as a technically proficient actress but not a very naturalistic one. I keep thinking of that story about child star Margaret O'Brien who when asked to cry for a scene said, "How far down do you want the tear to fall?" Fanning's performance has a technical polish but lacks a certain inner fire and depth. Morse and Piper Laurie (as the grandma who's not unlike the mother she played in Carrie), however, ham it up to the point of laughable distraction. It's almost as if Kampmeier had created two films: a delicate coming-of-age drama and an over the top sweaty Southern Gothic melodrama.

Hounddog (rated R for a disturbing sexual assault of a young girl, and brief sexuality) will probably be remembered more for its controversy than for anything it actually accomplished as a film. I don't know what the film might have been like before Kampmeier felt pressured to re-edit but based on what's currently in the film I don't think it could have been drastically different.

& Companion viewing: Black Snake Moan, Eve's Bayou , Virgin (Kampmeier's first film)

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