Bastard Out Of Carolina

1996, Movie, R, 101 mins

Review

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Anjelica Huston's directorial debut received unexpected notoriety after Ted Turner, who financed the production, refused to air the finished product on his TNT network. Perhaps he did BASTARD OUT OF CAROLINA a favor by publicizing this sober, nonsensationalized expose about child abuse--which subsequently aired on Showtime and was released to home video. Although not the masterpiece many critics proclaimed it, this wrenching drama is persuasively scripted, sensitively directed, and searingly acted (with a few exceptions).

The backwoods Boatwright clan has always been looked down on by more financially secure families in South Carolina. After Anney Boatwright (Jennifer Jason Leigh) gives birth to an out-of-wedlock baby prematurely, she's horrified that her sister, Ruth (Glenn Headly), doesn't think fast enough to fake the baby's legitimacy on a birth certificate. Having survived traumatic entry into the world, Anney's cherished daughter, nicknamed Bone (Jena Malone), grows up poor, proud, and unaware of the turmoil her mom's bad luck with men will later cause.

Although Anney weds the loving Lyle Parsons (Dermot Mulroney), the stability he briefly furnishes to Bone and her half sister ends when he's killed in a car accident. Weary of slinging hash to provide for her daughters, Anney neglects the advice of her mom (Grace Zabriskie) and rashly marries Glenn Waddell (Ron Eldard), an unstable ne'er-do-well introduced to her by her brother, Earle (Michael Rooker). Treated like a black sheep by his well-off father (Pat Hingle), weakling Glenn buckles under adversities such as Anney's miscarriage and her inability to have more kids.

Feeling impotent psychologically, Glenn turns his lustful attentions to youngster Bone, whom he resents for the attention she elicits from Anney. Although Anney is initially unaware of Glenn's intimacy with her daughter, she does little to prevent his physical mistreatment of Bone. Because Anney remains sexually satisfied by Glenn, Bone becomes a casualty of her mother's determination to stay married, even as Anney's pipe dream of becoming a housewife is dashed by Glenn's chronic unemployment. While Anney works double shifts, Glenn terrorizes Bone at every opportunity to bolster his ego, but he never breaks the child's spirit.

Using Ruth's illness as a pretext to ensure Bone's safety, Anney allows Bone to take care of Ruth until her death. At Ruth's wake, Anney's brothers severely beat Glenn after Anney's sister, Raylene (Diana Scarwid), discovers welts on Bone's body. When Bone moves in with Raylene, unrepentant Glenn bides his time and one day breaks into Raylene's house, viciously raping Bone after she stands up to his bullying. Catching Glenn in the act, Anney nonetheless can't break away from her no-account husband. Professing her love for Bone, she bids farewell to her daughter, who grows up protected from further brutality from her stepfather but unable to reconcile her mother's words with her actions.

Spellbinding and viscerally upsetting, BASTARD OUT OF CAROLINA ranks with TV's SYBIL (1976) and the indie feature ABUSE (1996) as one of the most trenchant examinations of child abuse extant. Whereas most contemporary films incorporate this touchy subject into a thriller framework, BASTARD plunges headfirst into the psychology of the unconscionable adult and helpless victim. Based on Dorothy Allison's thought-provoking book, the film views the child as a vessel into which the deviant pours all his/her inadequacies. What compounds the innocent youngster's tragedy is the complicity of the other parent, who looks the other way or blames the child for the transference of adult sexuality. The rationalizations of the grown-ups spread like a biblical plague.

If psychological acuity is this movie's greatest strength, then its primary liability is the inability of the director and some cast members to convey regionalism convincingly. Although it's not in a league with THE BEANS OF EGYPT, MAINE (1994) and other folksy horrors, BASTARD doesn't portray its protagonists' fiercely rural heritage in a consistent manner. Zabriskie chews up the countryside like Granny Clampett on a moonshine spree, and Headly takes too long to settle into her character's accent and carriage. Leigh manages to move the viewer to tears, but she never submerges her natural intelligence. Far more at ease are Scarwid, Rooker, and Malone. Malone's performance would be a remarkable achievement even for an adult--the subtlety and range she demonstrates are astonishing in a child.

Director Anjelica Huston deserves credit for the dignity she brings to the lives of the hardworking Boatwrights, who are dismissed as poor white trash by their neighbors. Dynamically, Huston hammers home the dysfunctional legacy which Anney passes on to her children--a legacy of female domestic battery at the hands of Neanderthal men. Although she's a captive audience at her mother's submissiveness, Bone somehow acquires a determination to break the cycle of violence. Unforgettably, BASTARD OUT OF CAROLINA makes a bold statement about a little girl's grace under inordinate pressure. (Graphic violence, sexual situations, adult situations, substance abuse, extreme profanity.) leave a comment

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