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Sundance film stirs controversy
Sundance film stirs controversy Dakota Fanning
Artistic expression or child abuse? An Atlanta actor defends the controversial film starring 12-year-old Fanning. If there's a powder keg at this month's Sundance Film Festival, it's the untitled drama that features 12-year-old Dakota Fanning, whose character is raped by a small-town bully, and co-stars Afemo Omilami, the Atlanta-based actor who plays the soft-spoken mentor who helps her.

"The Untitled Dakota Fanning Project (aka Hounddog)," as the low-budget film is known in indie circles, will debut at Sundance in Park City, Utah, on Jan. 22 and will screen for five consecutive days. Filmed in North Carolina last summer by writer-director Deborah Kampmeier ("Virgin"), it's about a young girl in the early 1960s who is reaching puberty and becoming obsessed with Elvis Presley's music when tragedy strikes.

Among this year's crop of Sundance features, "it's an absolute priority film to see," says Tom Quinn, head of acquisitions for New York-based Magnolia Pictures. "As a buyer, I am definitely excited, and as an audience member, I think the public can handle it. It's a definite 'A' title."

Hollywood has a long history of controversial movies involving young girls in violent and/or sexual situations: Brooke Shields in "Pretty Baby," Jodie Foster in "Taxi Driver," Linda Blair in "The Exorcist." And the Fanning film, which few people have seen, has already ignited protests.

The child advocacy group A Minor Consideration, founded by former "Donna Reed Show" and "Micky Mouse Club" actor Paul Petersen, has published a lengthy article on its Web site (www.minorcon.org) attacking the movie. "An insidious evil is spreading throughout Hollywood," Petersen writes in reference to its rape scene, declaring that the Fanning movie "has sunk to another mindless low point."

Omilami begs to differ.

"I don't know what people are so upset about," the 56-year-old actor says recently while sitting at a conference table at Acuity Inc. in Decatur, the company that manages his acting career. "Believe me, Deborah is going to be so tasteful and so subtle. She's handling this in such an artistic way, so delicately that I'm sure people will appreciate that."

The director uses shadows and cut-away imagery to depict parts of the sexual assault, Omilami says.

In his mini-review summary of the film, Sundance's Trevor Groth heaps praise on Fanning's performance. "She tackles an immensely challenging role, a role that would have scared off even the most seasoned of actors, with an awareness and ferocity that will leave audiences shaken to their core," Groth writes.

Though few have seen the entire movie, a small sampling of dailies from the production illustrate not only the Conyers-born actress's ability to belt out a good rendition of an Elvis song but the bond she and Omilami developed during their performances. Since the filming ended, they frequently write each other letters. Hers are in longhand with her trademark dotting of each "i" with a little heart.

"She works and works and works, but she's still a little girl," Omilami says.

One scene expected to be in the finished film shows the Conyers-born actress standing on the limb of a giant tree, warbling Presley's "Hound Dog" and then conversing with Omilami's character, Charlie, who stands at the trunk below. "I'll be a big star some day," she says.

He talks to her about life and diversity, the blues and finding her own special voice. Then he gently instructs her to "come on down now, Missy."

The tree, Omilami explains in an interview, is "her place of refuge." The two meet there several times during the course of the movie.

Like most films in competition at Sundance, the Fanning project will arrive in search of studio distribution. Last year, for example, the popular "Little Miss Sunshine" played at Sundance and then landed a multimillion-dollar distribution deal with Fox Searchlight.

Fanning's film is not only a gutsy move for the young actress that challenges her child-star image; it's also a high-profile venture for Omilami. He's done years of stage work and has appeared in supporting and character roles since 1979 in such movies as "Remember the Titans," "Idlewild" and "Drumline." He also appeared in the Oscar-winning "Forrest Gump," as a drill sergeant.

This will be Omilami's first venture to Sundance, where he'll arrive with his management team and actress-wife Elisabeth Omilami, daughter of the late civil rights leader and politician Hosea Williams.

"I am going with an entourage," he says with a booming laugh.

Before production began last summer with co-stars Robin Wright Penn, David Morse, Piper Laurie and Jill Scott, another actor was expected to play the part of Fanning's mentor.

"They were thinking of using all the A-list people: Delroy Lindo, Laurence Fishburne, Courtney Vance," Omilami says. "But everybody was tied up with something."

Enter the seasoned actor, who lives in Lithonia and, with his wife, helps run the Hosea Feed the Hungry Program in Atlanta.

"I understood this character right off," Omilami says. "I knew who he was." He flew to North Carolina, met with Kampmeier and Fanning, and instantly the part was his.

"They said, 'I hope you brought some clothes, because you're not going home.' "

Omilami says he had no trepidations about the controversial nature of the script.

"I thought this was a very noble character, a very righteous guy, and I don't see this kind of character often at all," he says. "I thought, 'I've got to do this.' It was like when they sent me the script to 'Forrest Gump.' I read it and said, 'This is Academy Award [material]' right off the bat."
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(c) 2007 Atlanta Journal-Constitution.