PARK CITY -- "Hounddog" is the bete noire at this year's Sundance Film Festival. But as is often the case, most of the protests were coming from people who haven't seen it. There is nothing exploitive or sensationalized about the story of a 12-year-old girl's rape in the rural South in the late 1950s. Starring Dakota Fanning in an absolutely riveting performance, the film, directed by Deborah Kampmeier, is a cautionary tale of what happens to all too many young girls. It's a courageous film, and subject matter and controversy will undoubtedly create some curiosity at the boxoffice.

Prefestival buzz about the danger of exposing poor 12-year-old Fanning to this kind of material proves unwarranted and disingenuous in a society that is constantly sexualizing young girls. The character's sexual awakening just happens to be in 1958, triggered in part by the eroticism of Elvis Presley's music. As Lewellen, a jewel among the rotting cars and run-down shacks in rural Alabama, Fanning projects a strange mix of innocence and awareness. The triumph of her performance is her ability to turn it on and off in the same scene, sometimes even in the same shot.

Lewellen shuttles back and forth between living with her abusive, alcoholic father (David Morse) and her strict, God-fearing grandmother (Piper Laurie, reprising her role from "Carrie"). For a young girl just hitting puberty, the mix of repressiveness and permissiveness (she sips from her father's beer bottle) has to be confusing. Her mother long out of the picture, she desperately wants a female role model, a role that her father's sometime girlfriend (Robin Wright Penn) is in no shape to provide. As a child, she was probably raped, too.

Lewellen is pretty much left to figure things out for herself. Her only friend is Buddy (Cody Hanford), a sweet neighborhood boy for whom she has a normal sexual curiosity. The sole adult looking out for her is Charles (Afemo Omilami), a horse trainer for the rich people. As an embodiment of the female spirit and the injustice women endure, Lewellen has an instinctive bond with Charles, the oppressed black man.

The only thing that keeps Lewellen sane is singing, which is ironically what gets her in trouble. When she sings and gyrates to "Hounddog," she is both aware and not aware of what she's doing. Unfortunately, the kid who delivers the milk (Christoph Sanders) catches her act and is turned on. When he lures her to the woods with the promise of a ticket to see Elvis and does the deed, we see little of the gory details; the scene is shot matter-of-factly without excess.

Occasionally, Kampmeier lays on the southern Gothic too heavily. Snakes are crawling everywhere in the movie, and after Lewellen is raped, she is visited in bed by a bunch of reptiles. The tone of the story veers from the naturalistic to the mythical, but it is sometimes inconsistent, and a couple of plot points are overplayed. Still, in spite of a few missteps, the cumulative impact of the film is undeniable.

Shot beautifully by Ed Lachman, Jim Denault and Stephen Thompson, the darkness and light in the forest conjures up the lair of a fairy tale princess, which is the kind of archetypal power Kampmeier is aiming for. After the incident, which threatens to destroy her life, Lewellen is rescued not by a prince but by Charles, who forces her to exorcise her demons by singing the blues. Her now hesitant and soulful rendition of "Hounddog" is both heartbreaking and life-affirming.

A bluesy score by Me'shell Ndegeocello and period songs, including Big Mama Thornton's original version of "Hounddog," evoke the mournful undertone of life in the South. It is from this kind of suffering that artists are born. Lewellen might not be well or cured, but she is on the mend, which is a start.

The Motion Picture Group in association with Full Moon Films and Deerjen Prods.
Director-screenwriter: Deborah Kampmeier
Producers: Deborah Kampmeier, Jen Gatien, Raye Dowell, Terry Leonard, Lawrence Robbins
Executive producers: Robin Wright Penn, Scott Franklin, Henri Kessler, Rebecca Cleary, Stacey Bakula
Directors of photography: Ed Lachman, Jim Denault, Stephen Thompson
Production designer: Tim Grimes
Music: Me'shell Ndegeocello
Costume designer: Leigh Leverett
Editor: Sabine Hoffman
Lewellen: Dakota Fanning
Grammie: Piper Laurie
Daddy: David Morse
Stranger Lady: Robin Wright Penn
Charles: Afemo Omilami
Buddy: Cody Hanford
Wooden's Boy: Christoph Sanders
Grasshopper: Isabelle Fuhrman
Big Momma Thorton: Jill Scott
Running time -- 98 minutes
No MPAA rating