Hype Deflates Shock Value in 'Hounddog'

Photo: don't talk to strangers! 'Hounddog' reveals a darker side of Hollywood it-girl Dakota Fanning(Lewellen).
Hannover House/Courtesy
don't talk to strangers! 'Hounddog' reveals a darker side of Hollywood it-girl Dakota Fanning(Lewellen).

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Midway through "Hounddog," one begins to get the feeling that something is amiss. The tension that has been building the entire film seems no closer to breaking-though the audience may be considerably closer to doing so. As preteen Lewellen, Dakota Fanning stars in a picture with a great soundtrack and setting but little else.

The story follows angst-filled Lewellen, whose unsteady home life allows her fanciful wanderings through the jungles and marshes that pervade her lonely hometown somewhere in the Deep South. With devoted friend Buddy (Cody Hanford) in tow, Lewellen explores every stream, pond and willow tree in a setting straight out of a Faulkner novel, a beautiful and haunting visual portrait of the gothic South. Such a comparison would surely be embraced by the filmmakers of "Hounddog," who try desperately to inject the film with an aura of biblical power. Lewellen's conversations with black farmhand Charles (Afemo Omilami), her only adult friend, reveal her obsession with the concepts of sin, evil and redemption. He serves as a kind of prophet, casting a spell that entrances the audience even more thoroughly than it does Lewellen, and their scenes together are the film's best.

In addition to biblical rhetoric, Lewellen's other obsession is Elvis Presley-whose throaty voice and hip-shaking she's constantly imitating. Her love of Elvis leads her to the film's defining-and much publicized-moment. Led to a farmhouse by a promise of Elvis tickets, Lewellen is brutally raped by the teenage boy who guaranteed them to her. It would be a shocking scene if not for all the publicity surrounding it (evangelicals in South Carolina, where the movie was filmed, and other southern states protested its release). Nevertheless, it forms the emotional crux of a largely non-existent plot.

This film will surely be promoted as the end of Dakota Fanning's innocence-and rightly so. But it is by no means an end to her annoying screaming, which has threatened to ruin better movies, namely Steven Spielberg's remake of "War of the Worlds." Fanning's ability to make an audience wince is in peak form here, assuming said audience is comprised of preteens or older. But in all seriousness, Fanning is not the film's biggest problem-or even its most irritating one. After all, such a young actress who dominates the screen like she does in "Hounddog" is bound to get on your nerves at some point. No, the most frustrating part of "Hounddog" is its lack of plot or character development. After being struck by lightning (in a perversely comic scene), her father (David Morse) inexplicably reverts to the mental and verbal state of a perpetually unclothed five-year-old-an element that, like a lot of this film, just doesn't make sense.

Though Lewellen struggles to recover from the rape, which has left her unable to sing or dance like Elvis, it's honestly hard to tell the difference in Fanning. She remains sullen and moody, experiencing various fits of rage so identical that they become boring. Fanning's performance is not great, but the writing doesn't really help her. There's just nothing in the script that makes her a likable character, though the film tries to convince us she is. When her latent recovery brings tears of joy to Charles' face, the audience feels nothing remotely akin to that feeling, and the emotion seems, simply, forced. "Hounddog" is a story so devoid of substance it almost parodies past Gothic tragedies set in the South and comes off like a cheap imitation. It would not make Faulkner proud.

Recall your preteen angst with Nick at [email protected]

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