It might not be possible to review Hounddog without commenting on the controversy – Sundance screenings, committees of concerned parents, online petitions, the list could continue – but I am going to try. The film was written and directed by relative newcomer and genuine talent Deborah Kampmeier. It tells the story of Lewellen, a young girl who lives in a world where fantasy overtakes reality. She hates her father (David Morse), worships Elvis, and is positive that one day the rock superstar is going to sweep her far from the downtrodden house where she lives with a grandmother (Piper Laurie) who doesn’t want her to grow up.
There is much to praise about the film. Kampmeier wonderfully evokes 50’s-era southern-ness, thunder erupting and blues playing and snakes slithering into damply lit frames. There’s a sense of gothic, too, of stories being told and retold, that worked wonderfully in Kampmeier’s 2003 debut, Virgin. Virgin is perhaps even harder to watch than Hounddog but, because that film takes its time rather than rushing towards a fitting but ill-earned conclusion, it’s ultimately more effective.
As Hounddog opens, Lewellen’s urging her friend Buddy (Cody Hanford) to show her his penis; she rewards him with a quick peck on the lips and an expectant hopeful smile – wasn’t that great? Fanning conveys so much wordlessly it’s hard to believe she was only twelve when the film was shot. We meet her abusive father, and his girlfriend (Robin Wright Penn), who has a fragility that’s almost as heartbreaking as Fanning’s innocent sexuality. We watch Lewellen belt out Elvis songs like her life depends on it, encouraged by a kindly black neighbor (Afemo Omilami), who, after Lewellen is raped while trying to get Elvis tickets, becomes the story’s saving grace. All of this is fairly predictable, but thanks to fine writing and a gifted cast it is engrossing. The relationships that develop between Fanning and Penn, and Fanning and Hanford, are unique and touching.
About an hour into the film, Morse’s character gets struck by lightning and spends the last forty-five minutes wandering around like Frankenstein gone farcical. Here the movie begins to border on ludicrous, some of the subplots unnecessary and even laughable, and the cast looks as confused as I was. But that doesn’t mean the world Kampmeier has created isn’t initially transporting – and it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take the time to watch the film. Flawed and heavy handed as Hounddog is, it says much about the sources and uses of provocation – the way young girls see themselves and are seen, present and past.