review: hounddog — universal and important

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[originally published: http://www.films42.com//guests/hounddog.asp]

Hounddog

Written and Directed by Deborah Kampmeier
Starring Dakota Fanning, Piper Laurie, David Morse, Robin Wright Penn
An Empire Film Group release

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
September 16, 2008

houndog

My invitation to this film screening came in the Internet version of hushed tones. “This is the film right-wingers don’t want you to see (even though most of them have never seen it). Because of them, Kampmeier had to have FBI security at Sundance ’07, & she’s still receiving hate mail. See HOUNDDOG & then decide for yourself!” appeared on a flyer e-mailed to a set of individuals, including a group of journalists of which I am a member. The e-mail informed me that HOUNDDOG was about to be released in Chicago (and four other cities) after searching for months for a distributor.

I scanned the cast list, and that was enough of a pull for me: Dakota Fanning, Piper Laurie, Robin Wright Penn, and, oh yeah, a few men too. I submitted a reply that yielded an invite and the screening location in downtown Chicago. Middle of the day in the middle of the week in an industry screening room on an upper floor of a Loop office building. Surrounded by professional reviewers, some of whom clearly attend these kinds of screenings often (while eating huge meals). And with no ceremony, a little past noon, no silly ads, big screen and excellent print (this movie fiend could get accustomed to this treatment), the movie began.

HOUNDDOG opens and closes on tender, slightly damp views of overgrown hillsides. The camera slowly focuses, through grey-green misty leaves, on a pre-pubescent boy Buddy (Cody Hanford) and girl Lewellen (Dakota Fanning) who scramble in the underbrush seeking known private places—evoking memories of my own suburban Midwestern childhood explorations of vacant lots and woods. Shadows, the children’s accents, and the lush underwater green of the photography, and the location tell you that this is the American South, in the summer, in some timeless, not yet specified era. For a moment,W. Eugene Smith’s famous image of two children walking hand in hand out of lush wilderness from THE FAMILY OF MAN comes to mind. Then small details accumulate to suggest that this may not be a story of simple childhood innocence. The children have more than one day’s worth of dirt on their faces and clothing. The pair, on the cusp of sexual maturity, exhibits both natural curiosity (“you show me yours”) and discomfort (“I don’t want to”). Buddy and Lewellen discuss some bruises that seem to be a bit too oddly placed and “down there” with mysterious sources. “My daddy gave that to me,” our clear-eyed Lewellen tells her young pal. We are on edge.

We follow Lewellen back into her home, a shack, where a woman she doesn’t seem to know (“Stranger Lady,” played by Robin Wright Penn), but who seems to know her, is waiting with Lewellen’s Dad (David Morse). There are secrets everywhere that are apparent to an adult viewer: Dad seems perhaps a bit too close to his daughter, and this stranger lady is perhaps one in a string of women who suddenly appear, requiring Lewellen to make herself scarce.

Single-parent dating can be handled with humor and charm (see, for example, A THOUSAND CLOWNS) or with undercurrents of unknown dynamics. How does a parent negotiate this role? And from the first moments when Lewellen’s dad asks her to do her Elvis “You ain’t nothing but a hounddog/crying all the time” song and dance, we see an innocent, vocally talented, and emotionally full girl dancing for adults, and we wonder about the full range of their responses to her. At a distance, we feel uneasy. That evening, Lewellen is dispatched to her grandmother’s (Piper Laurie) house up the hill. We wonder about the underlying stories here.

Lewellen is clear-eyed, curious, and full of the Delta blues music that animates her beloved Elvis (whom she later learns absorbed this music from Black musicians). Her imitations of his delivery of those words are requested repeatedly: by her father, as entertainment for himself and his lady friend; by the teenager who delivers milk to her house in the woods; by that same boy as part of a pivotal sequence of events in a sad little riverside shack; and in a potentially career-making performance by her groom friend Charles (Ofemo Omilami) for a group of blues musicians. These characters, who live at the edge of society, make do, run the households, and tend the stables of the (faceless) moneyed classes.

This movie is more about the attempted rape of a passion for music than it is about physical violence in multiple forms (adults against children, children against children, and adult against adult). This is a sweet and painful story of thwarted trust (person to person); loss (mothers absent through death, and a grandmother who absents herself through a rigid belief system); and of neighbors and assembled families doing for one another and making do in a time of want, in a land of haves and have nots. This is a story of the redemptive, passionate, life-giving power of jazz and blues. This is a story of multiple layers of violence and multiple layers of love and redemption. This is a story of survival, of loss and of need, through transcendent feeling… in music. And this is a story that I, a middle-class, middle-aged woman, experienced as universal and important. These acts of transgression and everyday violence are felt by any group that is disempowered and which has its dreams diminished.

Dramatically, thematically, visually (the direction is daring and the cinematography is inspiring), and musically (original and vintage cuts are expertly assembled), this is a simple and resonant film. Director and writer Deborah Kampmeier (VIRGIN) has crafted a human-scale story we come upon quietly and leave just as quietly. As the movie closes, the camera pans back to reveal a strong and resolved Lewellen, walking out of the underbrush away from two hopelessly mired adults (her grandmother and her father) and into her future with a caring adult. Select your own image and metaphor of survival. This is a movie that needs to be seen.

© Martha Wade Steketee (September 16, 2008)
Photo credits: HOUNDDOG. A film by Deborah Kampmeier. An Empire Film Group release. All Rights Reserved.

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