Monday, March 09, 2009

Monday Movie Review: Hounddog

Hounddog (2007) 7/10
Lewellen (Dakota Fanning) is a poor southern girl in the 1950s, obsessed with Elvis. Her father (David Morse), whom she hates and adores, beats her. Her grandmother (Piper Laurie) preaches to her. The void in her might be filled by singing, or by her father's new girlfriend (Robin Wright Penn), or not at all.

Moments, it seems, after filming wrapped on Hounddog, word got out that it featured a scene of Dakota Fanning (then 13) being raped. Mired in controversy, the film was unable to find distribution. I'm not sure what the availability is now. I saw it as part of an event at the family shelter where I volunteer.

You can definitely find fault with Hounddog. There are times that the filming is absolutely beautiful, and times when it's so self-conscious you just want to roll your eyes. There's a difference between being good with the camera, and showing me you're good with the camera. Director Deborah Kampmeier doesn't always know the difference. The plot relies heavily on a Magical Negro, some of the symbolism is as heavy-handed as the camera work, the resolution is painted as a happy ending but clearly isn't, and I found a real confusion in the sense of place (like, where are they exactly? What state? And where is the concert venue at which Elvis sings, which is so important to the story?).

For all these flaws, Hounddog is a movie worth seeing. It has a clear story to tell, about coming of age, about snakes in the grass, about all the forces in the world lined up to prevent a pretty together girl from becoming a pretty together woman. A lot of the symbolism is effective and compelling, and there's something effective about the sultry effect of a hot Southern summer; it's atmospheric and hypnotic. The use of music is excellent; because Lewellen is connecting to herself through Elvis, that's crucial, but the soundtrack stretches past the obvious.

David Morse always knocks my socks off, he is one of my favorite actors, and he doesn't disappoint here. He begins as a quietly threatening force, and when an accident changes him, he is persuasive in that role as well. Dakota Fanning is a striking young actress; she has some of the natural power of Jodie Foster at that age. In fact, the whole cast is remarkable.

And what of the rape? There is nothing explicit shown; no underage nudity, although you may have otherwise, and no prurience. This story is Lewellen's, and the experience is hers. It's painful to watch, but it's a pivotal crisis and the story can't be told without it.

(You ain't nothing but a cross-post)