If "Houndog" were French, it would be praised as a worthy study of a child on the brink of adolescence. But because it's American, it gets attacked (primarily) for its subject because the majority of Americans are uncomfortable with on- or off-screen sexuality (unless it's the crude "American Pie" kind) and uncomfortable with depictions of other Americans that don't adhere to their idealistic perceptions of themselves -- as winners.
Deborah Kampmeier's understated film is not about winners and losers; it is about finding a safe personal harbor. Dakota Fanning, who slips into the skin of her character and never sheds it, plays a precocious young girl, living in an impoverished Southern town, who is fixated on Elvis Presley and his imminent tour of the region. Unable to afford tickets to his concert, Dakota is given an opportunity to perform "Hounddog" for a local teenager in exchange for tickets. Instead, she gets raped. Three carefully chosen shots illustrate the act. None are explicit.
Laden with the weight of disappointment and betrayal, Dakota becomes solemn and depressed, but is gradually eased out of her state and into her safe harbor by the kind-hearted Charles (Afimo Omelami) and his love of blues music.
Of course, there is a lot more to "Hounddog" than what I've described. It is a gentle, understated study of childhood curiosity and exploration. Dakota's character is sexually curious in the way all of us (as children) once were. Her behavior and performance is natural and unforced. David Morse, who plays her father, is striking as man who journeys from aggressive deadbeat to passive simpleton after he is struck by lightning. Piper Laurie, playing an older, less extreme version of her Margaret White from "Carrie", achieves the perfect balance as Dakota's "Mother". Rounding out the cast is the subdued Robin Wright Penn as a woman whose grasp on life is tentative at best and the excellent Cody Hanford as Dakota's young friend, with whom she is testing the anxiety-ridden waters of adolescence.
The cinematography of the stunning Southern shantytown and some moody interiors by the ever-reliable Ed Lachman (and two other contributors) is excellent, as is the score by Meshell Ndegeocello.
Though this doesn't achieve the emotional resonance of similar films like the Czech "The Crow", the Japanese "Muddy River" or the French "Le Grande Chemin", it is a fine achievement that has much in common with European cinema and little in common with contemporary American cinema ("Lawn Dogs" and "Bastard Out of Carolina" excepted).