Down South

sarris2 4 Down SouthHounddog
Running time 93 minutes
Written and
directed by Deborah Kampmeier
Starring Dakota Fanning, Robin Wright Penn, David Morse

Deborah Kampmeier’s Hounddog, from her own screenplay, has survived a disastrous screening of a rough cut at 2007’s Sundance Film Festival to open next week in New York. As Julie Bloom described this high-wire act in the Arts and Leisure section of the Sept. 14 Sunday New York Times, “It was known as the ‘Dakota Fanning rape movie’ [at Sundance]. The press screening for Hounddog elicited actual boos, not to mention eviscerating reviews. Even before that, evangelical groups protested the film after someone involved in its early financing alleged publicly and erroneously that Ms. Fanning was naked in it.”

Anyway, Ms. Kampmeier and her executive producer, as well as one of her stars, Robin Wright Penn, reedited the film, and lo and behold! An ultra-feminist testament has emerged, and a creditable vehicle for the extraordinarily talented Ms. Fanning. In Hounddog she plays a young girl named Lewellen, who lives in rural Alabama in the late 1950s as Elvis Presley rises to prominence. Hence, the title of the film, drawn from one of his biggest hits, repeatedly sung by Lewellen with the appropriate pelvic movements in between her roaming around the fields and mostly shabby shacks. In one of them, Lewellen is looked after by her firmly religious grandmother, Grammie (Piper Laurie). But every chance she gets, Lewellen runs down the hill to her much adored Daddy (David Morse) in his ramshackle dwelling, to which he frequently brings a mysterious woman of beauty and easy virtue (Robin Wright Penn). There is a vagueness about the sociological parameters of the characters that creates an aura of the allegorical and the mythological. In the production notes, Ms. Kampmeier divides her scenario into nine themes: darkness into light, motherlessness, the cycle of abuse, silencing (a reference to the 12 years it took her to make the film as a deplorable example of discrimination against woman directors), female sexuality, fecundity of the feminine, snake medicine, raw poetry and music (most notably the insight that Elvis appropriated or misappropriated the Negro blues for his own purposes). Elvis is indirectly responsible for Lewellen’s temporary downfall. But Lewellen’s one true friend in the world, Charles (Afemo Molinari), the African-American caretaker of the white-owned mansion down the road, encourages Lewellen to achieve her rebirth by singing in her own voice, instead of Elvis’s. Lewellen is inspired to do so after Charles takes her to a rehearsal of the blues sung by Big Mama Thornton (Jill Scott) and her small band.

So Hounddog, like Lakeview Terrace, turns out to be more about race than it first appears. The narrative is extremely sketchy amid all the flora and fauna of Ms. Kampmeier’s fertile imagination, which encompasses a profusion of snakes, a crossing of class lines by children, a stroke of lightning that incapacitates Daddy and makes him childishly dependent on Lewellen, a glimpse of the real Elvis (Ryan Pelton) by a passing car. This sighting makes Lewellen so feverishly determined to get a ticket to his local concert from a teenage neighbor that she unwisely agrees to do her Elvis impersonation in a barn, where the boy rapes her and flees without giving her a ticket.

Earlier, however, Lewellen had humiliated a playmate her own age named Buddy (Cody Hanford) by compelling him to undress completely before she would give him an eagerly sought-after kiss. So consistency as well as coherence are not Ms. Kampmeier’s strong points. Nonetheless, Ms. Fanning’s performance alone makes Hounddog worth seeing in this age of child Duses.

asarris@observer.com