I was at Blockbuster the other day and stumbled upon the movie Hounddog. It intrigued me: it was about the Deep South, its star was Dakota Fanning, and I had heard a lot of good things about this movie. And poverty is a great source of material for both books and movies — consider The Grapes of Wrath and Angela’s Ashes.
In the movie Hounddog, 9-year-old Lewellen (Dakota Fanning) lives hand-to-mouth in 1950s Alabama. She bounces between her alcoholic, sharecropper father and her bitter grandmother. Lewellen’s best friends are Buddy, a neighbor boy, and Charles, a poor but wise and wonderful black man, who works on a farm next door. Lewellen’s mother is dead and her aunt fades in and out of the picture as Daddy’s sometime girlfriend.
The only bright spots in Lewellen’s gray and dismal world are music, Elvis, and the song "Ain’t Nothing But A Hound Dog," which Lewellen performs with talent and heart. And her dream is coming true — Elvis is coming to town to perform.
Poor people live at the base of an active economic volcano that is bound to erupt at some point and bury them. After which, some people find the strength to dig themselves out, but some people don’t survive. Lewellen’s problems start when her father is struck by lightning and suffers a brain injury, which means he can no longer work. Desperate to obtain a ticket to Elvis’s concert, Lewellen trusts her friend Buddy and agrees to meet him in an old shed. Once inside the shed, Lewellen is raped by an older boy. And of course, her 9-year-old world is shattered. The rest of the movie is her struggle to regain her life and spirit.
Hounddog does a pretty good job of illustrating life in the Deep South. Fortunately, my father left the South in the 1940s and found a well paying job in Kenosha, Wisconsin. So, my immediate family was not poor, but I had many poor relatives that I sometimes spent my summers with in Mississippi.
There are a lot of snakes in this movie. But if you spend much time in the rural Deep South, you know that encounters with snakes are common events. And snakes do play a role in some religions in the South. It’s also possible that the writer/director Deborah Kampmeier was using snakes as symbols of the Garden of Eden, loss of innocence, and other things.
One thing I noticed was that the actors’ southern accents come and go, but it didn’t spoil the movie for me. And the scene where Daddy gets blown off his tractor by lightning is more comical than dramatic. Otherwise, the film is well done.
Dakota Fanning’s performance deserved an Oscar: she is incredible. When this movie was released to theaters, there was a lot of controversy and media attention about the appropriateness of a movie focusing on the rape of a 9-year-old girl, and that probably cost Fanning her Oscar. But I feel the opposite — sexual assault has to be brought into the light, not hidden. Sexual predators thrive in darkness and secrecy. The rape scene is handled well and is not graphic. Like the girl she portrayed, Fanning was incredibly brave to take on this role.
The rest of the cast is great too, especially David Morse as Daddy. Morse is a great character actor.
I can understand why director Deborah Kampmeier chose 1950s Alabama as a setting; it was perhaps more of an age of innocence. But this movie could have also taken place in 2009. People forget that extreme poverty is still common in the South and still destroys a lot of people’s lives. And unreported sexual assaults are still happening all over the United States.
Hounddog is a treasure that was generally ignored by the Academy and most people. I hope the DVD release does well. And Elvis would be proud.