A brief, carefully shot rape scene involving 12-year-old Dakota Fanning made this humid drama about an at-risk adolescent in the Alabama backwoods of the late 1950s a cause scandale at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival. Flouting ridiculous accusations of "kiddie porn," the scene eventually arrived in theaters intact, and it's the strongest moment in a handsomely produced but unintentionally risible film that mistakes high grotesquerie for high gothic.
Lewellen (Fanning) lives in a rundown house in some unnamed Alabama town where deadly snakes slither through the tall grass, black folks play the blues raw and hard and the watering hole is best place for the barefoot young girl and her best friend, Buddy (Cody Hanford), to cool down during the long, hot afternoons. Lewellen's daddy, Lou (David Morse), farms his small plot, drinks too much beer and hits his daughter; he also smacks around his girlfriend, Ellen (Robin Wright Penn), who comes to stay for a spell until Daddy takes off once again, as he's wont to do. Lewellen's mother is long gone -- or so she thinks -- but her God-fearing maternal grandmother (Piper Laurie) keeps a close eye on the child when she can, and mostly what she sees is a sexually precocious, rock-and-roll loving youngster who'll soon find herself in trouble if she isn't careful around the boys she's already kissing. Famous for her "Elvis dance" -- a hip-swiveling rendition of his hit "Hound Dog" -- Lewellen has little idea of the effect she's begun to have on men, particularly the acne-blighted teenager (Christoph Sanders) who delivers her milk. Aside from her grandmother, Lewellen has little adult guidance: Her closest adult companion is African-American stable hand/snake-handling medicine man Charles (Afemo Omilami), who plays the blues and introduces Lewellen to Big Mama Thornton (an impressive Jill Scott), the originator of the song she loves so much. After a lightening bolt throws Daddy from his tractor and reduces him to a helpless simpleton who needs constant care -- a ominous event Lewellen interprets as a warning from the Lord to quit her sinning ways -- Lewellen's situation grows even more desperate. The hope of salvation comes when Buddy tells her Elvis himself is coming to town and promises her a ticket. But first she'll have to meet him down by the watering hole, where Buddy betrays his best friend and helps change Lewellen forever.
The amazingly talented Fanning continues to startle, and like Jodie Foster's controversial turn in TAXI DRIVER, her performance here points the way to a grown-up career ahead. But despite her gutsy turn and the film's admirable honesty and refusal to sugarcoat what routinely happens to neglected children, writer-director Deborah Kampmeier's follow-up to the acclaimed VIRGIN (2003) will be remembered as little more than a cult curiosity. Laurie, a fine actress who will be forever remembered as the crazed religious zealot she played in CARRIE (1976), brings an element of inadvertent camp to her portrayal of Lewellen's Grammie: "There'll be time enough for sinnin' when you're grown!" It's hard to say what Morse was going for with his post-lightning bolt Lou, but it verges on the ridiculous: The moment when he stands naked before Lewellen, hair styled in Buster Brown bangs and screaming "I can't stand it anymore!," is simply grotesque. leave a comment --Ken Fox