“It’s a hard world for little things,” Lillian Gish says of her pint-size charges in The Night of the Hunter, one of the most sympathetic portraits of kids under duress. It’s harder still for Dakota Fanning, the creepily committed child actor whose willingness to please appears to have been grossly exploited by writer-director Deborah Kampmeier.
In this rancid slice of Southern-fried crazy set in 1959 (referred to, since its 2007 Sundance premiere, as the “Dakota Fanning rape movie”), Lewellen (Fanning), a dirty, spindly-limbed creature, is immediately sexualized, a tiny temptress who drives both the milk-delivery boy
and her daddy (Morse) wild with her Elvis Presley hip thrusting. Kampmeier structures the film so that Lewellen’s violation becomes the moment that the spectator perversely anticipates, signaling the same shift of contempt and pity and mixed messages about female sexuality that marked her first film, Virgin.
Adding to the odiousness of Hounddog is the presence of a benign black man, Charles (Afemo Omilami), who functions only to take care of the damaged white people around him: In addition to his Uncle Tom–Eva relationship with Lewellen, Charles literally sucks the venom out of Robin Wright Penn’s character. “Gotta always somehow make good of what can poison you,” Charles tells Lewellen—a bromide that may make audiences pause to consider the recent vogue for unspeakable acts committed against children. Also premiering at Sundance in 2007 was An American Crime, in which Ellen Page is tortured by Catherine Keener; tots in the upcoming Changeling fare no better. Apparently, the world can’t be made hard enough for those little things.