PARK CITY, Utah - At Sundance Film Festival this week, a Southern Gothic tale that includes the rape of a young girl is causing the biggest stir.
"Hounddog" is the story of Lewellen, a girl played by 12-year-old Dakota Fanning, who is growing up in the 1960s South.
She is a free-spirit obsessed with Elvis Presley and has little supervision by her abusive father and alcoholic grandmother.
Even before the first screening of "Hounddog," a Christian film critic, citing Fanning's age, decried the movie as child abuse, and Roman Catholic activist Bill Donohue called for a federal investigation.
Fanning is defending her work as well as the movie, and so is the head of Sundance, who said it was courageous for director Deborah Kampmeier to tackle "challenging material."
"Hounddog" is entered in the festival's dramatic category.
"It's not a rape movie," Fanning said earlier this week. "That's not even the point of the film."
The disturbing scene lasts a few minutes but is not graphic.
There is no nudity, the scene is darkly lit and only Fanning's face and hand are shown.
Kampmeier said it took her a decade to get the film made, largely because of the rape scene, but cutting it was a compromise she was unwilling to make.
"This issue is so silenced in our society. There are a lot of women who are alone with this story," she said.
"When you're shooting a film, it's the images you line up next to each other that create a story," Kampmeier said. "If you have a hand hitting the ground, Dakota screaming 'stop' and you see a zipper unzip - that creates a rape."
Ted Baehr, chairman of the Christian Film and Television Commission and publisher of the Web site movieguide.org, claims "Hounddog" breaks federal child-pornography law. He said the law covers material that "appears" to show minors engaging in sexually explicit conduct.
"Even if they're not actually performing the explicit act, we are dealing with a legal issue here," he said.
Baehr said Fanning is being exploited in the film and that it should be considered an outrage.
"Children at 12 do not have the ability to make the types of decisions that we're talking about here," he said. "If we're offended by some comedian's racial slur, why aren't we offended by somebody taking advantage of a 12-year-old child?"
Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, said he has asked the U.S. Justice Department to investigate whether anti-pornography laws have been broken.
Fanning said she and Kampmeier talked for months before the film was shot and spent a day painting pottery together and discussing the story.
"It's not really happening," Fanning said of a rape. "It's a movie, and it's called acting. I'm not going through anything."
Sundance director Geoffrey Gilmore said independent filmmakers should pursue sensitive subject matter.
"I feel the mission and very nature of what Sundance is about is to provide a platform for that," he said.