A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that this controversial independent drama has been discussed for more than a year as "the film where Dakota Fanning gets raped." Although the scene in question is far less graphic than the hype suggests, a heavy coming-of-age drama that deals with rape, racism, and family dysfunction isn't likely to appeal to teens (or, thankfully, Fanning's many even younger fans). In addition to the notorious rape scene, someone uses the "N" word against an African-American man, a woman is bitten by a rattlesnake, a man is struck by lightning, and a dog is shot. There's also some underage drinking and smoking and mild sexuality.
What's the story?
In the Deep South in 1959, 12-year-old Lewellen (Dakota Fanning) loves Elvis so much that she can't stop singing -- or dancing -- like him. When she and her best friend, Buddy (Cody Hanford), discover that the King is going to give a concert in town, she's desperate for a ticket. Unable to score money from her mean father (David Morse) or rock 'n' roll-hating grandmother (Piper Laurie), Lewellen reluctantly agrees to do her "Hounddog" act for a teenage boy who promises tickets but has evil intentions. After she's brutalized, Lewellen loses her will to sing or live.
Is it any good?
Fanning is clearly talented beyond her years, but this unremarkable coming-of-age story isn't the best showcase for her acting gifts. Director Deborah Kampmeier reportedly drastically altered the second half of HOUNDDOG since she submitted a rough cut that garnered mediocre reviews and general outrage at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival. Without having seen the earlier cut, it's impossible to tell whether the changes made the film better, but one thing is clear -- the infamous rape scene is neither explicit nor exploitative. The scene, in which viewers hear more than they see, is a story development used to show how a pre-pubescent Lewellen is figuratively and literally silenced -- until a sage African-American caretaker (Afemo Omilami) helps her discover her "true voice" via the blues.
Unfortunately, the movie's metaphorical message lacks the intended emotional punch because it's so overpowered by banal Southern stereotypes (hissing snakes, a Bible-thumping grandmother, an emotionally abusive father, to name a few).
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about why this film is considered controversial. Is it because a young girl is assaulted or because Dakota Fanning is assaulted? Why do you think Fanning chose to take a role like this? Do child stars "owe" their younger fans anything in terms of making family-friendly movies? Families can also discuss Lewellen's love for Elvis' music. Critics have said that the filmmaker used Elvis as a symbol for how art can help people transcend/escape their troubles. Is that the movie's message? What about Lewellen's behavior -- was it risky? And how is race dealt with in the film? Why is it important to keep the setting and time period in mind?
- In theaters: September 17, 2008
- On DVD or streaming: February 3, 2009
- Cast: Dakota Fanning, Robin Wright, Ryan Pelton
- Director: Deborah Kampmeier
- Studio: Deerjen Films
- Genre: Drama
- Run time: 102 minutes
- MPAA rating: R
- MPAA explanation: a disturbing sexual assault of a young girl, and brief sexuality
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