Fanning Controversy

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Full Moon Productions / Reuters

Robin Wright Penn (L) and Dakota Fanning in the film Hounddog.

Rumors swirled on the ticket line that protesters were being bussed in and festival-goers were being frisked. Neither occurred, but the credits to the Jan. 22 Sundance Film Festival premiere of Hounddog might as well have included the tag line: "Dakota Fanning was not harmed in the making of this movie." Fanning, 12, plays a victim of sexual abuse who finds comfort in Elvis Presley music in the film, which has been condemned by religious groups and child advocates as child pornography. Former child actors, like Alison Arngrim (Nellie from Little House on the Prairie) and Paul Peterson (Donna Reed's son) told reporters that Fanning was being exploited. Online petitioners called for the arrest of Fanning's agent and mother and attempted to block the film's distribution.

In the disturbing but not graphic scene that inspired the controversy, the camera fixes on a closeup of Fanning's terrified face while a neighbor boy unzips his pants. Despite the lack of nudity, and cutaways to falling rain, it's clear the boy rapes Fanning's character, Lewellen. More uncomfortable to watch than that short scene, in which the trauma is implied, are the lingering shots throughout the film in which Lewellen gyrates to Elvis music in her underwear while older men and boys watch hungrily.

Uproars like one surrounding Hounddog also arose in 1978, when 12-year-old Brooke Shields played a child prostitute in Pretty Baby, and in 1997, around a remake of Lolita. "The controversy comes from a societal terror that we have," Hounddog's writer-director Deborah Kampmeier said after the premiere. "A lot of people think we're gonna die if we tell this secret." The secret to which Kampmeier refers is that of sexual abuse of children. At the screening, representatives of the Rape Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) took the stage and delivered the statistic that in the time it took the audience to watch the film, eight children under 12 age were sexually assaulted.

Fanning also fielded questions at the premiere. The young star of Charlotte's Web and Dreamer said the toughest scene for her to film was not the rape, but one in which rattlesnakes slither into her bed: "Some of those twitches were real."