Based on Dorothy Allison’s novel, Bastard Out of Carolina is the story of a young woman’s illegitimate daughter who becomes a victim of the physical and sexual abuse of her stepfather during the 1950s in rural South Carolina. Directed by acclaimed actress Anjelica Huston in her directorial debut with a teleplay by Anne Meredith, the TV-film explores a woman’s struggle to love her husband while dealing with her daughter’s abuse as her family watches in horror. Starring Jennifer Jason Leigh, Ron Eldard, Glenne Headly, Dermont Mulroney, Grace Zabriskie, Diana Scarwid, Lyle Lovett, Susan Traylor, Michael Rooker, and in film debut, Jena Malone along with narration by Laura Dern. Bastard Out of Carolina is a harrowing and heartbreaking film from Anjelica Huston.
After giving birth to her first baby in a state of unconsciousness, following a car accident, and then losing her first husband (Dermont Mulroney) before the birth of second child. The life of Anney Boatwright (Jennifer Jason Leigh) has been a difficult one as she’s raising two young girls in Reece (Lindley Mayer) and Ruth Anne (Jena Malone), who is also called Bone, while living with her mother (Grace Zabriskie) and surrounded by a close though dysfunctional family. When her brother Earl (Michael Rooker) introduces Anney to Glen Waddell (Ron Eldard), Anney is smitten by Glen as the two start a relationship though Anney’s mother isn’t sure about the relationship while knowing that Glen comes from a very rich family.
After the two wed and Anney is expecting another child, things seem to go well until one night when Glen is waiting in the car with Reece and Bone as he wakes Bone up and molests her. Bone becomes confused over what happened as the child Anney gave birth to died stillborn as she and Glen move to various places as Glen struggles to hold down a job. During a visit to the home of Glen’s father (Pat Hingle) where things go wrong, Glen later takes out all of his frustrations on Bone as she would have to endure countless abuse until a doctor asks Anney about what’s going on. Bone, Reece, and Anney stay temporarily with Anney’s sister Alma (Susan Traylor) and her husband Wade (Lyle Lovett) until Glen asks Anney to come home.
When Anney’s older sister Ruth (Glenne Headly) falls ill, Bone is asked to help take care of her, Ruth wants to know what is going on with Glen as she asks Bone about what he’s been doing to her. Bone couldn’t muster up the courage to tell as she returns home to endure another beating as Earl and her aunt Raylene (Diana Scarwid) find out what Glen did to Bone. Earl and Raylene let Bone stay at Raylene’s river home as another family crisis involving Alma brings the family together. When Bone tells her mother that she won’t come because of Glen, Anney finds herself torn between her love for both Glen and Bone.
Films about child abuse can often lead to sentimental and very overwrought ideas but this film is not about child abuse. Instead, it’s about a woman torn between the devotion of her new husband who loves and cares for her though he also has a temper and acts like a grown child. The other thing that this woman loves is her eldest yet illegitimate daughter as she had grown up without a real father figure though she was able to be loved by a man who was later killed in an accident. For this woman, she is desperate to have a man in her life away from her mother and her rural background. Yet, she also has her daughter whom she loves so much but couldn’t bear to see her be harmed in such a gruesome way.
Anne Meredith’s teleplay definitely goes into depths of what Anney Boatwright is going through as she had someone who loved her but then died right away as she hopes to find someone who can get her out of the environment she lives in. While Anney has a family that does love and care for her, despite being quite dysfunctional, she needs a man to be with her so she wouldn’t have to take care of her tired mother. While Glen isn’t a complete bad man, he is earnest in his love for Anney and Reese while is also a victim of abuse from the way his father treats him. Due to what he’s gone through, Glen is forced to take out all of his anger and yearning to be loved by abusing Bone.
The narration, that is told by Laura Dern as the older Bone, has Bone reflecting on the misfortune of her entire life as due to the confusion of her birth certificate, Bone was certified a bastard from the day she was born. Though Anney wants to do good for Bone, her devotion to Glen makes Bone feel more on the outs as she clings to the people in her extended family such as the spiritual Ruth, the playful Earl, and the hardened but wise Raylene. Since she feels like Glen doesn’t love her at all and going through all of this abuse, Bone becomes a much more weary and grounded child that has lost her innocence. Through all of this, she becomes more confused into why her mother would still be in love with a man that would do a thing to her.
Anne Meredith’s script gives director Anjelica Huston the chance to create a film that doesn’t stray into the conventions of TV movies while allowing herself to get her hands dirty in exploring its subject matter. Huston’s direction has a wonderful sense of intimacy for a lot of the dramatic scenes while some of it is very eerie. Notably the scene where Bone is being molested for the first time as Huston has the camera solely focused on Bone. Huston knows what to do while not making it too graphic as she also keeps some of the scenes simple in the way she presents the film. Overall, it is an impressive directorial debut from Anjelica Huston.
Cinematographer Anthony B. Richmond does an excellent job with the photography as it‘s straightforward though is set in a very gray time as it‘s shot on location in North Carolina. Richmond also creates some amazing shots and shadings to emphasize the dark tone of the film for scenes of Bone dealing with everything around her. Editor Eva Gardos does a wonderful job with the editing to maintain a leisured pace to the film while doing a few rhythmic cuts to play up some of the intense drama and heightened moments in the film.
Production designers Nelson Coates and Van Broughton Ramsey, along with set decorator Burton Rencher, do great work with the art direction to play up the world of rural South Carolina in its poor, working class environment that many of the characters live in. Ramsey’s work on the costume design is superb to play up that poor look with its very casual yet grimy clothing while making some stylish clothes such as Anney‘s waitress dress. Sound editor David Hankins does a nice job with the sound to play up the sparse intimacy of the homes that Bone goes to as well as a few scenes to liven things up for its large ensemble cast.
The film’s score by Van Dyke Parks is pretty good for its haunting yet dramatic orchestral score to play up some of the harrowing moments of the film. The music soundtrack that is supervised by Robin Urdang features an array of old-school 1950s gospel and country music that features pieces from Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, the Carter Family, George Jones, Wanda Jackson, and Blind Willie Johnson as the music pieces selected for the film is a major highlight.
The casting of John Brace and Linda Lowy is brilliant as they created what is truly an amazing ensemble cast. Small but notable appearances include Dermont Mulroney as Anney’s kind first husband Lyle, Richard Todd Sullivan as Ruth’s husband Travis, Christina Ricci as Ruth’s teenage daughter Dee Dee, and Pat Hingle as Glen’s spiteful father. Other notable small but memorable roles include Lindley Mayer as Bone’s younger sister Reece, Lyle Lovett as Bone’s uncle Wade, Susan Traylor as the no-nonsense Alma, and Grace Zabriskie as Anney’s tough and suspicious mother who has mixed feelings about Glen early on.
Glenne Headly is very good as Bone’s saintly yet lively aunt Ruth who tries to get everyone to feel good while becoming very concerned about Bone during her illness. Diana Scarwid is excellent as aunt Raylene, a wise yet grounded woman who takes Bone in while trying to make understanding of everything Bone has gone through. Michael Rooker is wonderful as Bone’s uncle Earl who is a fun guy that loves his niece while being the only true male protector she has when dealing with Glen. Ron Eldard is great in a terrifying performance as Glen, an immature man who truly loves Anney yet harbors great resentment towards Bone as Eldard truly brings a complexity to a man that hates this young girl for making Anney choose between him and her.
Jennifer Jason Leigh is superb as Anney, a woman that has experienced loss and turmoil as she is desperate to hold on to the man that loves while being tormented by the fact that he abuses her daughter. Leigh’s performance is definitely harrowing for the fact that this woman is in complete conflict while she doesn’t make Anney a character to despise for the decisions that she makes. Finally, there’s Jena Malone in her feature-film debut as it is truly one of the most outstanding debut performances for any actress. Malone brings a wide range ideas into her role as someone who can be very charming and witty in light-hearted scenes while showing that she’s capable of being very engaging in darker scenes. Though she was only 10 when she did the film, it is truly a performance for the ages for the way she exudes all of the anguish and emotional turmoil that Bone goes through as it’s a mesmerizing yet heartbreaking performance from Jena Malone.
Bastard Out of Carolina is a marvelous though unsettling TV-film from Anjelica Huston that features a great ensemble cast led by Jennifer Jason Leigh and Jena Malone. It’s not an easy film to watch due to its subject matter and the fact that Huston doesn’t hold things back in terms of its dark themes. Bastard Out of Carolina is a sensational yet eerie film from Anjelica Huston.
© thevoid99 2011
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