In the middle of the 1990s, Anjelica Huston was having trouble getting excited about her next project. After lengthy discussions with the Showtime network, she agreed to make a half-hour film for its actors-directors series. The stories sent to her did excite her. Many seemed related to her Oscar-winning film, Prizzi’s Honor, which she found “too personal in terms of my father’s work”. However, she eventually settled on a project.
Then she came to work and found Anne Meredith’s script for Bastard Out Of Carolina on her desk, along with an offer to direct it for TNT.
Huston said she was “…absolutely bowled over by the quality of the writing. I bought the book and thought it was a tremendous, beautiful piece of writing, very emotional. So I made my mind up over the weekend”. The project for Showtime went on hold.
Filmed in Wilmington, North Carolina during December 1995, the story takes place in Greenville, South Carolina during the 1950s. The opening scenes use a voiceover by Laura Dern to describe the birth of the protagonist, Ruth Ann, who is nicknamed Bone, and her unmarried mother, Anney (Jennifer Jason Leigh). (For most of the film, eleven-year-old Jena Malone plays Bone.)
Anney was born out of wedlock, and it bothers her that a similar stigma will affect Bone. It particularly angers Anney that the courthouse issued Bone’s birth certificate with “Illegitimate-Not Certified” stamped across it.
Life is happy for a time when Anney marries Lyle (Dermot Mulroney). They have a daughter, Reese, and he is also a loving stepfather to Bone. After Lyle is killed in a freak car accident, Anney marries shifty, quick-tempered Glen (Ron Eldred).
There are signs of trouble early in the marriage. Glen has trouble holding a job, and he becomes aggressive over perceived slights to his authority. He seems ecstatic over Anny’s pregnancy and the impending arrival of what he is sure will be a son.
After a prolonged labor, Anney gives birth to a son who dies. The doctor says she cannot have more children. At this point, Glen’s fury spills over onto Bone. He begins beating and abusing her. Abuse gives way to reconciliation, which gives way to more abuse.
Bastard Out Of Carolina makes its points here but does not belabor them. Even so, it is chilling to watch as dread and terror play across Bone’s face during her encounters with Glen. Anny’s slowness in acknowledging Glen’s behavior, and her tendency to forgive him when she does, are maddening.
Jena Malone, acting in her first film, is outstanding as Bone. So is Jennifer Jason Leigh as Anney. There are a number of strong supporting performances, notably Gwynne Headley and Diana Scarwid as Anney’s sisters and Michael Rooker as their brother.
I have only a couple of quibbles with this film. The opening scenes of the film veer toward caricature, particularly with the character played by Grace Zabriskie. Fortunately, this tendency is short-lived.
My other issue concerns Bone’s arc throughout the film. The viewer sees a resilient young girl surviving horrific conditions, but receives very little information about her core personality. While it is understandable that the filmmakers emphasized tonal continuity, I feel additional disclosure of Bone’s voice and hopes would have enhanced the film.
Overall, though, Bastard Out Of Carolina is powerful and thought provoking. It proved a little too thought provoking for Ted Turner, who decided against airing it on TNT. He did allow Huston to offer it to others. Bastard Out Of Carolina screened in the 1996 Cannes Film Festival in the category “Un Certain Regard”. In July, ironically, it was acquired by the network that had planned to make it in the first place-Showtime.
Theme: Sexual Abuse
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