Funny how history repeats itself. Back in 2007, Hounddog, about an Elvis-obsessed girl who suffers through abuse in the Deep South, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival to caustic reviews and immediate stigma as "The Dakota Fanning Rape Movie."
Now the 15-year-old Chloe Grace Moretz is headlining Hick, another rural yarn with a slur title about a pop-culture-saturated heroine from a broken family who loses her innocence all too quickly. It's not quite "The Chloe Grace Moretz Rape Movie," and doesn't deserve to be remembered as such — but then the film doesn't deserve to be remembered as much of anything.
What is watchable here is made possible by the sheer will of the gifted Moretz, who's in every scene as the precocious Luli. This is, after all, the same actor who gave us the indelible, foul-mouthed Hit Girl in 2010's Kick-Ass, not to mention darker creations in Let Me In and Texas Killing Fields.
Here she effortlessly embraces the twangs of her character's voice and demeanor, brandishing a .45 in the mirror of her empty Nebraska home while she recites lines from all the movies she's internalized.
Luli's parents, it seems, aren't big on supervision or guidance: They hold her 13th birthday party at the neighborhood bar. And that .45? It's a birthday present from her uncle, which they let her keep. When they abandon her, she skips town with the .45 and a halter top, bound for Coming of Ageville. (Technically it's Las Vegas, but the destination doesn't matter.)
A tiresome pattern develops early. Luli's traveling companion, whether it's con artist Glenda (Blake Lively) or the terrifyingly friendly Eddie (Eddie Redmayne), takes her somewhere unsafe, where she witnesses or partakes in activities representing all the horrors the adult world has to offer: crime, alcoholism, drug use, worse. Then she climbs back into the car with the same near-total stranger who only moments before had placed her in jeopardy.
We are meant to feel sorrow and compassion toward this girl, so unable to bring herself to leave dangerous situations. Except, since we know Luli's capable of fleeing the dangerous situations at home, the fact that she would continue to so naively trust these people speaks less to her character than to the story's need to force forward momentum. It's as if the filmmakers realize there'd be no movie if their protagonist ever stopped to say, "Maybe I should take the bus instead."
The screenplay is by Andrea Portes, a Nebraska expat and former script reader who wrote the autobiographical 2007 novel that inspired it. Portes' dark themes, easier to stomach on the page but land mines for the screen, demand a treatment that's even-handed and direct.
Yet director Derick Martini strikes a tone that's alternately crass (swooning ballads underscore more horrific moments) and cloying (frequent cutaways to Luli's colored-pencil fantasies, lest we forget how young she is). The cast holds the gravity of the story at arm's length like it doesn't really concern them; they play their characters broadly even when they're supposed to be showing real emotion.
Who the heck is Hick for? Who would want to witness so many awful things happening to a young girl while a Bob Dylan tune strums in the background? Amazon says customers who bought the book also bought Hounddog. What a double feature that would make.