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You won't be able to hear Elvis Presley's "Hounddog" again without flashing back to the stomach-churning image of a preteen Dakota Fanning being raped in this Southern-fried morality tale.


Controversy has, ahem, dogged director Deborah Kampmeier's 1950s-era coming-of-age story for obvious reasons since its lukewarm reception at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival. Police in North Carolina--where the Alabama-set Hounddog was shot--even investigated whether the sexual assault of Fanning's precocious 12-year-old Elvis Presley devotee broke local child pornography laws (it didn't). Kampmeier has reedited Hounddog since its Sundance premiere--hence the delay getting the film into theaters--but she's retained the scene that will likely be among the most discussed, dissected and unjustly condemned this year. Fanning's Lewellen isn't raped until an hour into Hounddog. By that time Kampmeier's established Lewellen as a wayward young girl desperately in need of a parental role model. Her mother died years earlier. Her loving but oft-absent Daddy (David Morse) disappears for days on end, leaving her with her Grammie (Piper Laurie) or one of his girlfriends, such as the visiting "Stranger Lady" (Robin Wright Penn). Then Daddy's struck by lightning. Money was tight before Daddy's accident; now that his injuries have rendered him unfit to work and reliant upon Lewellen to take care of his needs, there's nothing coming in. So Lewellen--who seeks solace in the songs of Elvis Presley--is willing to do almost anything to get her hands on a ticket to see her idol in concert. And that's when things go from bad to worse …


Wasn't it only a matter of time that Fanning, the most talented child actress working today, would attempt to tap her inner Jodie Foster? And it's evident during the first few minutes we're in Lewellen's company that Fanning's as capable portraying emotionally fragile characters as she is spreading light and joy in Charlotte's Web or Dreamer. "I'm going to kill my daddy one day," Lewellen says with a coolness and confidence that sends shivers down your back. Fanning effortlessly acts beyond her young age, though this also means her renditions of "Hounddog" too sexualized for comfort. Not that it's Lewellen's intention to be provocative or Kampmeier's goal to turn her into Lolita. But it's easy to see how her behavior attracts the wrong kind of attention. During the rape scene, Kampmeier keeps the cameras on Lewellen's face. It's terrifying to watch as Fanning struggles and screams. After the rape, Fanning communicates a silenced Lewellen's intense pain in an eloquent and subtle way that allows you to empathize with her. Too bad Fanning's let down by Morse and Wright Penn. Then Daddy's struck by lightning. Money was tight before Daddy's accident; now that his injuries have rendered him unfit to work and reliant upon Lewellen . At first, Morse promises to offer a study in parental neglect. But after Daddy's accident, he laughably turns into "Simple Jack." Looking tired and downtrodden, Wright Penn fails to give her "Stranger Lady" any mystery, tipping us off that she's not the stranger she's made out to be.


Knowing Lewellen's fate in advance puts you on pins and needles as you prepare yourself for the inevitable. It's not something anyone wants to watch--there are fewer things more sickening than the sexual assault of a defenseless child--but Kampmeier deserves applause for handling this disturbing event in a delicate but purposeful manner. The act is brutal enough in itself that Kampmeier can cut away from it as quickly as possible and still achieve her goal of establishing the rape as the catalyst for Lewellen to find her true voice. Still, you sit through Hounddog eyeballing every man or boy Lewellen encounters--Presley excluded--with suspicion, which distracts from the compelling events that unfold before the rape. Afterward, you can't help but feel Kampmeier's fallen into the trap of punishing those who listen to "the Devil's music," as Grammie likes to label rock'n'roll. After all, it's Lewellen and her Daddy who suffer the most for their purported sins against God, but Lewellen's rapist is never judged for his actions. While Kampmeier does a great job getting inside Lewellen's head, and taking us back to a time when gyrating your hips prompted moral outrage, she doesn't seem too concerned that Hounddog limps along slower than a three-legged mutt with arthritic knees. Or that Morse's post-accident performance would be better suited to a Rain Man spoof. At the very least, though, Hounddog confirms that the mesmerizing Fanning will be as good an actress when she grows up as we hope and expect she will be.

Bottom Line rated this film 2 stars.