An absorbing, sometimes wrenching tale of growing up poor and abused in the 1950s South, “Bastard Out of Carolina” is a handsome, thoughtful picture that may benefit from Ted Turner’s refusal to air it on TNT. Turner’s decision presents an opportunity to some enterprising distrib, because the pic is a quality item earmarked for serious auds by its nonexploitative handling of potent material, the strong work of debuting helmer Anjelica Huston and striking perfs from young newcomer Jena Malone, Jennifer Jason Leigh and others. Good reviews and sensitive handling should help establish “Bastard’s” legitimacy on the arthouse circuit and abroad.
This movie handles its tricky subject matter — which includes an account of child battery and rape — with just the right blend of tact and truthfulness. Despite the key events that account for tale’s notoriety, Huston’s pic, like the acclaimed Dorothy Allison novel on which it is based, concerns much besides child abuse. Set in Greenville, S.C. (though filmed in Wilmington, N.C.), not long after WWII, story looks behind “Tobacco Road” cliches to evoke the complex weave of love, hardship and family bonds that conditioned the life of poor whites in the days before New South prosperity kicked in.
The pic opens with a narrator (voiced by Laura Dern) recalling that she was born after her single mom, Anney (Jennifer Jason Leigh), was hurled through a car windshield during an accident. An uncle nicknamed the newborn Bone, and the county declared her illegitimate, beginning a long obsession with that label on the part of both Anney and her daughter.
With Bone still a tyke, Anney meets and weds Lyle (Dermot Mulroney), a sweet-tempered sort who gives her a second daughter before expiring in a freak auto mishap. Working as a waitress and aided by the presence of her large extended family, the young widow is still eager enough for love that she eventually succumbs to the earnest courting of Glen (Ron Eldard), a laborer she marries despite hints that he’s shifty and possessed of a nasty temper.
Bone (Malone) and Glen are subtly at odds from the outset. But it’s not until Anney loses the son she’s carrying, and is declared unable to have more children, that the man starts looking for a punching bag. Bone is the nearest target. At first, he spanks her as punishment and deviously wins Anney’s acquiescence. Soon the beatings are regular, secret and sadistic. Even when their discovery causes Anney’s male relatives to whale the daylights out of Glen as a warning, the respite proves only temporary.
Anney reacts by leaving Glen, but eventually she returns. She’s torn between two kinds of love, and her inability to reconcile them sets the stage for the horrific event that climaxes the tale and prompts Bone to reject her mother. While the gist here is, of course, mostly disturbing and sad, there’s an implication of victory in the fact that Bone survives — and tells her story.
Anne Meredith’s script preserves the key ingredients of Allison’s tale while skillfully imposing dramatic structure and economy. Its one drawback — a minor one — lies in not making more use of the novel’s pungent humor.
Meredith’s work provides Huston a solid basis for several achievements, most notably the film’s extremely sensitive handling of violent and sexual content. It deserves to be stressed that “Bastard” is a model of intelligent dramatization in this regard. While these scenes are not for the faint of heart, neither are they protracted or heavy-handed.
Helmer also deserves credit for eliciting pic’s numerous fine perfs, including the enormously impressive work of Malone, a native Nevadan who not only sports a dead-on Southern accent but also carries the drama.
Leigh’s work proves so ingratiating because it has none of the caricatured elements of some of her recent perfs; here she shines in a relatively normal part that recalls her very real talents.
Several supporting players make vivid contributions, including Glenne Headly, Michael Rooker, Susan Traylor and Diana Scarwid as Anney’s relatives. And though Eldard, as Glen, has a game go at a tough part, he’s a bit too lightweight and conventionally good-looking to offer the dark idiosyncrasy the part needs.
Other pluses are Van Dyke Parks’ subtly atmospheric score and Nelson Coates’ rustic production design. Anthony B. Richmond’s warm lensing leads the list of other solid tech credits.