The film "Hounddog" hasn't found a distributor yet, but it's already developed an audience eager to bury it before it sees the light of day.
Deborah Kampmeier's independent movie about a young Southern girl who uses the music of Elvis Presley to escape a life of sexual abuse has drawn fire for putting its underage star, Dakota Fanning, in situations that many call unconscionable.
At the heart of the controversy is the depiction of the rape of the central character, Lewellen, by a young man who lures her with the promise of Elvis Presley concert tickets.
FOXNews.com columnist Roger Friedman, who screened the movie in January at the Sundance Film Festival, said that although nothing graphic is shown in the scene, it is "disturbing."
Debate Over Child Actors and Sexuality Is Decades Old
Last year, fueled by rumors from the set and leaked portions of the script, several petitions against the film began circling the Internet calling for the criminal prosecution of the filmmakers in North Carolina, where the movie was made.
"The sound I heard when this came out was the sound of a bunch of knees jerking," said North Carolina state Sen. Phil Berger.
Last year, prosecutors in Brunswick County, N.C. — where "Hounddog" was filmed — and nearby New Hanover County reviewed the film and decided that it did not violate state child sexual exploitation or obscenity statutes.
"We followed it up just like we would any allegation of child abuse or sexual exploitation of children," said Rex Gore, district attorney for 13th prosecutorial district of North Carolina. That follow-up included a screening of the film by prosecutors and interviews with film principals, including 12-year-old Dakota.
The questionable scenes in the film did not meet the legal definition of "sexual activity," and the simulated scenes failed to fall under obscenity laws, Gore said.
"They are prosecutors who have a history of making sure that children are protected from sexual predators and that we deal with the injuries to children in a meaningful way," Gore said of his staff. "So they were satisfied it didn’t meet the statutes as for the prosecution of obscenity or child exploitation."
The decision by Gore and Benjamin David, district attorney for the state's fifth prosecutorial district, hasn't squelched the furor.
"North Carolina is a conservative state, but North Carolina puts the interest of getting a film industry ahead of Dakota and ahead of kids. And politically, from a local standpoint, it's not surprising," said Miami-based attorney Larry Klayman, the founder of Judicial Watch, a conservative "watchdog" group. "But I think that this could probably happen in any state that wants a film industry."
On Jan. 29, Klayman sent letters to the U.S. attorney in the eastern district of North Carolina and U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales calling for the prosecution of the filmmakers under federal child pornography statutes.
"This administration has almost no support from Hollywood, so they should be able to do what's right," Klayman said.
Robert Lacey, a 37-year-old father of two from Spring Lake, N.C., created a petition last August against "Hounddog."
"I can't imagine what her parents were thinking in letting her do this," said Lacey, who obtained hundreds of signatures. "But there are a lot of parents out there that let their kids do things that I would totally disagree with."
The publisher of Movieguide.org, a family Web site that called Dakota's latest film, "Charlotte's Web," "a humble, radiant miracle," said that he hates "to see her demeaned in any way."
"We need to rediscover a sense of shame," said Ted Baehr, who's met both Dakota and her mother, Joy Fanning. "I think the filmmaker is the one who has convinced people to allow the child to engage in this and is the perpetrator. I think that her parents should be ashamed of it, and I like the mother."
Dakota's publicist, Cindy Brinkman, did not reply to requests for an interview.
Dakota said in an interview last year with the Web site Cinematic Happenings Under Development that the film was no more taxing than her role in the horror film "Hide and Seek."
"It's really no different than playing any other character. I'm still not playing myself," she said. "I get to experience different things people go through without going through them myself, which is no different from watching a news story and learning from that. It's an emotionally moving movie, and I hope people enjoy it."
In an interview with Premiere magazine, director Kampmeier denied she had traumatized Dakota.
"I think to some extent what they're accusing me of is putting Dakota through some ordeal or a simulation of rape, but that's not the case," Kampmeier said.
"The scene was never run through from start to finish; it was shot in increments, over and over, never in a single take," she continued. "The construction creates the impression of the violence, but doesn't represent the feeling on the set or something that might have traumatized Dakota, especially since there had been so much rehearsal."
Officials from several child advocacy groups in the state declined to comment because they hadn't seen the film.
It's not the first time that an underage child star has appeared in an adult role. Beginning with Sue Lyon's turn as a teenage sexpot in Stanley Kubrick's interpretation of Vladimir Nabokov's "Lolita," Hollywood directors have been embroiled in controversy for putting young actresses in compromising roles.
But at least one law expert says it's unlikely that Kampmeier will face federal child pornography charges.
"These people who are threatening to try and bring it under child pornography, that's not what child pornography statues are aimed at — the concept of it," said T. Barton Carter, professor of communication and law at Boston University, who notes the First Amendment applies to movies too.
"This is the same as, about six or seven years ago, somebody tried to apply those statutes to 'The Tin Drum' without success," he continued. "Obviously you could argue that then you could use it on a 'Lolita.' This is simply not what the statute was designed to prevent."
The fact that an underage actress is starring in a film that she herself is too young to see doesn't qualify it for prosecution.
"There are a lot of things that, for example, I might feel somebody shouldn't do or shouldn't say or portray but that doesn't mean that it should be illegal," Carter said.
Prosecutors in North Carolina found the subject matter in "Hounddog" does have redeeming qualities.
"Our hope is [that] folks' awareness will be raised to the point — where not necessarily by this movie, but maybe by the controversy — that awareness will be raised to the point where they'll understand, when children reveal this, we need to all take it seriously," Gore said.
But Berger doesn't want his state scandalized again. Last month, he announced he was submitting legislation for pre-production script approval for any film made in North Carolina using state grant money. Films made in the state qualify for a 15 percent cash rebate following production; it's estimated that "Hounddog" may be eligible for a $600,000 rebate.
"The public has a right to know who is trying to take money from the state treasury and have some input into whether or not that's an appropriate expenditure of state tax dollars," Berger said.
Berger's hope is to protect his state's reputation in the film world and beyond.
"We create potentials for embarrassment on the part of the state of North Carolina, and I think that’s the last thing we want to do if we’re trying to grow the film industry," he said. "We certainly want to grow quality projects, and projects that the people of the state can be proud of if the state is investing money in them."
Debate Over Child Actors and Sexuality Is Decades Old