Humbert Humbert once notoriously reasoned that "[b]etween the age limits of nine and fourteen there occur maidens who, to certain bewitched travelers, twice or many times older than they, reveal their true nature which is not human, but nymphic (that is, demoniac); and these chosen creatures I propose to designate as 'nymphets.'"
Yes, the innocent have become temptresses. The victims villainesses. And this is the fate of prepubescent Lewellen (Dakota Fanning), a "white trash" Lolita in Deborah Kampmeier's semi-autobiographical ode to guiltlessness lost, Hounddog.
Set in Alabama in the late 1950s, the film opens with a slithering snake, Freud's favorite phallic symbol. Before it ends, two characters will be bitten, another will milk rattlers for their poison, and a fourth will dream she's festooned with vipers.
The metaphorically adder-plagued, blonde, and bedraggled Lewellen--who stalks about the rural, impoverished countryside like a femme-fatale Huckleberry Finn--is being raised by a brutal father (David Morse) and a God-fearing grammie (Piper Laurie). Paternity and religion have seldom been depicted so bleakly.
To cheer everyone up, including herself, Lewellen, with her big eyes and sullen lips, at times does Elvis imitations.
But then one day Dad gets struck by lightning and turns into an imbecile who wants Lewellen to sit on his lap because it feels good. However, Pa's transformation from a perverse sadist into a perverse sad sack has to compete with the news that the King will be coming to town to perform. Can a poor girl with no cash get tickets? Add to our prepubescent heroine's troubles the fact that a young, acned milkman has the hots for her.
Yes, rape is in the air, although possibly a little less rape than originally filmed. Because Hounddog's Sundance debut caused so much of a moral furor, the film has been re-edited. Having not seen the original cut, I'm at a loss to note the changes.
What I can tell you, though, is that the performances are universally first rate, especially Fanning's and Robin Wright Penn's. Penn's character, who just might be Lewellen's unlikely savior, is billed as Stranger Lady, which tells you a bit about the creator's self-control.
Kampmeier doesn't stop there. Within the production notes, her deconstruction of the film's intentions is broken into little chapters with titles such as "fecundity of the feminine," "darkness into light," and "raw poetry."
Under the latter heading, she writes, "The clichés of 'Southern Gothic' come from a mysterious truth found in the South that there is something mythic in the dysfunctions of this world. And something beautiful in our desires to wrestle them." Calm down, woman.
This apparently intended, cliché-ridden heavy-handedness made concrete on celluloid at times pushes Hounddog into absurdity. But then the skill of the actors and the cinematographer nearly make up for the director's lack of judgment and restraint.
Yes, the film's visuals are stunning, and the subject matter vital. As in the much better Bastard out of Carolina and Ripe, both also directed by women, child abuse and young girls' preconscious sexuality are addressed head-on, as they should be.
The hypocrisy of those attacking Fanning (and her family) for taking on this role is beyond unseemly. It's dangerous, and Fanning is superb as she presides over a decaying landscape. If only the project as a whole rose to her integrity and talent, cries of exploitation might never have been voiced. - Brandon Judell
Mr. Judell, who's currently teaching "Contemporary Israeli/Palestinian Cinema" at City College, has written on film for The Village Voice, indieWire, Detour, and dozens of other publications.