When Deborah Kampmeier's Southern-fried coming-of-age drama Hounddog debuted at Sundance in early 2007, it was known first as the notorious, buzzed-about Dakota Fanning rape movie, then as the disastrously received Dakota Fanning rape movie that went home without a distributor. Now, after plenty of post-production tinkering and voluminous editing—never a good sign—Hounddog is finally limping into a few arthouse theaters for a limited release, nearly two years after it was the talk of the festival.
In an impressive lead performance, Fanning stars as the sexually precocious progeny of David Morse, a hard-drinking, abusive ne'er-do-well who lets Fanning grow up wild in the '50s South. Fanning is obsessed with the music of Elvis Presley, whose songs she performs in a crude burlesque of Elvis' hip-swiveling ways. Then one day, Morse is struck by lightning and instantly devolves from a boozy scoundrel into a Faulknerian man-child with greasy Prince Valiant hair and an unfortunate penchant for public nudity. Though a generally reliable character actor with an impressive résumé, Morse here plays like an unintentionally comic homage to Lennie, the gentle giant in Of Mice And Men: He never seems more than a few moments away from begging Fanning to tell him about the rabbits.
In its superior first half, Hounddog immerses itself deeply in the rugged, lyrical, uncivilized nature of the Deep South in ways redolent of David Gordon Green's early films. Fanning is a wild animal of sorts, as undomesticated and prone to rambling as a stray dog. The rape scene is handled artfully and elliptically, and Hounddog takes Fanning's big-eyed precociousness into some dark places. But beginning with Morse's unfortunate descent from hell-raiser to village idiot, Hounddog devolves into a shameless amalgamation of overcooked Southern-gothic clichés. There's the usual hodgepodge of dark secrets, a deeply spiritual snake-handling Magical Negro (Aferno Omilami) who exists solely to give Fanning soulful advice on how to channel the healing power of the blues, a preacher damning rock 'n' roll as the devil's music, and Piper Laurie as Fanning's grandmother, heading into her third decade playing strong-willed, Jesus-fearing Southern matriarchs. Pretty but overwrought, Hounddog doesn't deserve its infamy, nor does it merit being seen or remembered.