Let's get this out there right from the top: Yes, Dakota Fanning's performance in Hounddog is mature, powerful, and everything it should be to launch her career to the next level as a young actress who can handle serious roles. That said, however, Hounddog is also one of the least likeable films I've seen here at Sundance -- and not, as you might expect, merely because it has a scene of the young actress being violently raped. Fanning plays Lewellen, a young girl somewhere in the South whose big dream is to meet Elvis Presley. Elvis, she imagines, is going to take her away from her troubled life and make her a famous singer. Lewellen lives back and forth between the ramshackle shack her daddy (David Morse) lives in, and the house up front where her Grammie (Piper Laurie) lives.
Lewellen and her family are what their neighbors on the better side of the tracks might call "white trash," and if ever a movie took every white trash stereotype out there and stuck in one place, this is it. And of course, if you're going to make a movie about white trash in the Deep South in the 1950s, why, there'd better be some black folks around for them to hang out with, so the well-to-do white folk can have a reason to toss around the "n-word." And while you're at it, make sure to make one of those black folks the wise, all-knowing, medicine-man character (Charles, played by Afemo Omilami) who saves the day with his mojo. Oh, and don't forget to toss in a random rich white girl to contrast with the trashiness of the poorer character and treat her like dirt, just in case we don't get it.
Here's what we have in the way of a storyline, such as it is: Lewellen's best friend is Buddy (Cody Hanford). Buddy's parents don't like him hanging around with the likes of Lewellen, and Lewellen's Grammie doesn't want her playing with boys, period. The film meanders along for a while, with so many scenes of Lewellen singing Elvis Presley songs (in particular, "Hounddog," hence, the film's title) that it starts to feel like you're watching outtakes from American Idol. That's the least of Hounddog's problems, though. The heavy-handed script telegraphs practically every plot point to the extent that it practically screams "foreshadowing" at you, from the ultimate identity of the "Stranger Lady" (Robin Wright Penn) who shows up at Lewellen's daddy's shack for a little sex and a little smacking around, to everything that leads up to the big, much ballyhooed rape scene.
The issue of the rape scene has been hotly debated since Fanning was cast in the role of Lewellen, with many questioning the appropriateness of the parents of the young actress (who, since she is a minor, have to approve her contracts) putting her in the position of having to act out being raped. The rape itself is not horribly graphic, although it is difficult to watch, but it's equally discomfiting watching Fanning, throughout the film, run around costumed in a skimpy undershirt and panties, writhing and wriggling her hips and fanny seductively as she imitates Elvis Presley's dance style. The point, I suppose, is that up until the rape Lewellen is play-acting innocently with no intent to be sexually provocative, and the way in which the rape happens takes that away from her, and Fanning's performance saves that aspect of the film from being wasted.
To be fair, there are some other decent performances here. Robin Wright Penn is her usually reliably good self as the stranger lady with a secret. Piper Laurie does well as the slightly off-her-nut, fanatical grandmother, but do we really have to see her always and forever shoeboxed into that type of role? The minute you see her on the screen, it feels like she's channeling Margaret White, aka Carrie's crazy mother. Omilami is actually quite good, but I wished that his character hadn't been so predictably written.
Hounddog could have been a much better film, especially with a young actress of Fanning's abilities in the lead role. This is her "Jodie Foster" moment, the point at which people are going to start taking the young lady seriously as a real actress, not just a cute kid, and if it serves that purpose, I suppose it wasn't a complete wash. After seeing her remarkable performance in Hounddog, I'm really curious now to see what she's going to do over the next several years. I'd like to see her (and her parents working with her until she's older) continue to take on challenging roles like this from time to time. She has the talent, in abundance. Let's see it put to use in better films going forward.