★★ / ★★★★
Lewellen (Dakota Fanning) lives with her grandmother (Piper Laurie) because her father (David Morse) is away often. But even when her dad is home, the majority of his attention is directed to another woman (Robin Wright). When Lewellen is sad and does not particularly want to show it, she turns to singing Elvis Presley’s songs, music that symbolizes reckless abandon, expression without bounds, and freedom.
“Hounddog,” written and directed by Deborah Kampmeier, relies on allowing us to sit back and observe the circumstances that lead to the event which changes Lewellen’s life forever. We often see her hanging around a boy around her age, Buddy (Cody Hanford), as they play in the river, capture snakes, and steal kisses from each other. The yellow-orange glow of the trees and the grass reflects their innocence, but the constant imagery of snakes slithering, writhing, hissing suggest that there is something vile just waiting for the perfect opportunity to strike.
The children’s adventures outdoors serve a nice contrast to Lewellen’s interactions with her grandmother while indoors. We feel the grandmother’s imposing presence when she enters a room, always looking unhappy, and begins to ask questions about her granddaughter committing “moral sins.” She is so devout, she considers it her duty to examine Lewellen’s body for possible markings that can point to her grandchild no longer being pure. There is certainly tension there because what you and I might consider normal childhood experimentation, including sexual experiences, is, to the grandmother, succumbing to the devil’s influence. In order to get rid of it, the child has to be punished physically. She is a scary figure because it is difficult to tell how she might interpret certain situations.
The film requires more focus on the relationship between the little girl and her father. When the father is struck with lightning, although he survives, he becomes a completely different person. Since the material does not provide enough information regarding who the father really is, other than he has always threatened to abandon his daughter, before the incident, we do not have much to work with with respect to the change. Lewellen loves her father for a reason. And it is not simply because he buys her Elvis Presley records. It is something deeper. I wanted to feel the depths of their connection but the screenplay is limited thereby lessening the material’s emotional impact.
“Hounddog” marks Fanning beginning to come into her own as a serious actor with a bright future. At times, the way she delivers her lines with ferocity mixed with vulnerability makes me overlook the weaknesses of the script. If the film has eliminated some of its many, somewhat unnecessary subplots and actually worked on strengthening the emotional connections between the core characters, the statement it wanted to make might have fallen into place.