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January 24, 2007 7:00 AM
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PARK CITY '07 REVIEW | The Showgirls of Sundance: Deborah Kampmeier's "Hounddog"

A scene from Deborah Kampmeier's "Hounddog," screening in the Sundance Film Festival's Independent Film Competition: Dramatic section. Image courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Calling filmmaker Deborah Kampmeier's over-the-top Southern gothic "Hounddog" the "Showgirls" of Sundance is recognizing the much talked about adolescent drama as the great, unintentional cult classic in Sundance history. Bad festival movies are common but "Hounddog," with its loony characters, piles of hillbilly stereotypes, heavy-handed visual metaphors and silly dialogue worth repeating is awful to the point of playful ridicule.

Lewellen is a young girl in '50s rural Alabama who lives something of a miserable life with her lecherous father (David Morse) and bible-thumping granny (Piper Laurie). Things look brighter upon news that Elvis Presley is coming to town. Lewellen is an Elvis fanatic to the point of performing her own gyrating renditions of Elvis tunes in front of her salivating father. But Lewellen's desire for concert tickets leads to trouble and it's this trouble that has earned "Hounddog" the most attention of any Sundance movie.

Tackling a mature role for child star Dakota Fanning means sass, backtalk and plenty of flashes of dirty panties. She is a Deep South waif and while some people are making comparisons to Brooke Shield's performance as a child prostitute in "Pretty Baby," the major difference is that "Pretty Baby" is a quality film.

The first unintentional laugh from Dakota comes when Lewellen howls like a wolf but there are plenty more. Piper Laurie displays no limits with her over-the-top performance as Lewellen's bourbon drinking, shotgun waving granny. David Morse has the most foolish role as his character shifts from thug to simpleton thanks to a lightning strike while riding his tractor. What Kampmeier asks him to do is embarrassing.

To Deborah Kampmeier's credit, the controversial rape scene is the most grounded sequence in the movie. It's anything but gratuitous except for the melodramatic thunderclaps that signal the presence of the film's teenage villain. In terms of technique, nobody doubts Kampmeier's skills behind the camera. Her camerawork with the three cinematographers who worked on the film, Ed Lachman, Jim Denault and Stephen Thompson, is solid. But I don't remember her debut feature "Virgin" being so over-the-top or silly. Like her characters in "Hounddog," Kampmeier doesn't know when to stop.

But the prospects for "Hounddog" are not bleak.

Imagine: midnight movie audiences would leap out of their seats and gyrate whenever Dakota Fanning's girl heroine breaks into an Elvis Presley song. I think it speaks to a fantastic theatrical future akin to a John Waters movie. Sadly, Kampmeier, her respected crew and cast clearly had something different in mind for "Hounddog." They wanted to make a dark Southern drama in the spirit of William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams. But the laughable "Hounddog" is Faulkner as interpreted by "Saturday Night Live."


ABOUT THE WRITER: Steve Ramos is an award-winning film writer based in Cincinnati, Ohio. When not on assignment, he maintains the blog Flyover Online.

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