The small actor in this case is 12-year-old Dakota Fanning, whose roles in such family-friendly fare as "Charlotte's Web" and "Dreamer" have earned her a reputation as something of a national sweetheart.
In "Hounddog," she still plays a sweet kid - one who becomes a rape victim.
The controversy over that 5-minute rape scene has overshadowed the story of girl growing up in the South circa 1960 with her single father and alcoholic grandmother.
Director Deborah Kampmeier says she took pains to avoid making the rape scene too graphic. But, she says, the subject matter needs to be discussed.
Before the movie's premiere Monday night, everyone wondered just how graphic that scene would be. Some didn't wait to see it before they started protesting: Bill Donohue, an activist who heads the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, has called for a boycott of the film.
The film received a generally positive reaction from Monday night's audience.
Matt Sullivan, of Orange County, Calif., was in the ticket wait-list line with his girlfriend, Ryan Physioc, at 2:30 p.m. - six hours before the screening. They are admirers of Fanning's work.
"We knew it was going to be big because of the controversy, and we heard random rumors in advance - and none of them were true," Sullivan said.
Richard Anderson of California, a film aficionado who attended the screening, wonders if the flap would have been as great without Fanning in the role. "If she weren't a well-known 12-year-old actor, it would be a different story," he said.
In a question-and-answer session after the screening, Fanning downplayed the harsh aspects of the role. "All of the parts I have to play have been challenging because I'm not playing myself. I'm playing someone else."
The Sundance Film Festival's treatment of sex has always been one way it differs from the mainstream movie world, and this year is no exception. Filmmakers this year are using mythology and practices the mainstream considers deviant to explore such human conditions as loneliness and the struggle to become independent.
Despite the hype about the rape scene in "Hounddog," the movie is really about child abuse, an issue that deserves discussion, said festival director Geoffrey Gilmore.
"I do think festivals are platforms for all kinds of social issues. We've shown a lot of films addressing difficult subjects in the past. I know filmmakers are grateful to us for giving issues a platform."
Monday, in one of the festival's first deals, the Weinstein Company signed on to distribute "Teeth," in which a teenager discovers vaginal teeth that emerge when she is attacked.
Director Mitchell Lichtenstein says "Teeth" is, more than anything, a coming-of-age story. "Besides whatever other element it has, it's about a girl growing up and learning to accept her fate," he said in an interview with The Tribune.
Other films that include references to sex this year include "Zoo," a documentary about a man who died having sex with a horse. Here, the incident became a means of exploring universal human emotions, like loneliness. The sex is barely mentioned. Instead, director Robinson Devor focused on the dead man's background and those who were with him that night. "I didn't want to be judgmental," he said after the first screening last Saturday, explaining that when the story hit the news a year and a half ago, it was met with "laughter, derision, scorn and hatred."