Watching Resolution: Bastard Out of Carolina (1996)

7. A film based on a book: Bastard Out of Carolina (1996)

List Progress: 2/12

TW: Child abuse, sexual abuse. 

Some films are more about feelings than plots. On paper, Bastard Out of Carolina is about a little girl in South Carolina who is abused, and eventually she reaches a place where she is no longer abused, but a plot summary loses a lot of the value of this story about family, community, identity and shame. That being said, the 1996 film adaptation has enough gestures toward more intricate plotting, presumably to be found in the 1992 novel of the same name, that it ends up feeling a bit incomplete. But that doesn’t make the final product any less wrenching or powerful, just a bit more slight.

Ruth Anne “Bone” Boatwright is born into a large South Carolina family when her mother is fifteen and unmarried. She has no father in the picture, but she grows up surrounded by aunts, uncles, cousins and a half-sister who all fill out and color her life. But her mother Anney is still a child herself, and craves affection and love so much that she marries a cruel man named Glenn, who before long starts abusing Bone both physically and sexually. This is not a film for the faint of heart; there are fairly-explicit scenes of Bone, played by a 12 year old Jena Malone, being molested, and one can only hope that the set and filming were safe and healthy for the young actress. Malone gives such a stirring performance, tapping into the quiet suffering Bone goes through and the moments of light in the darkness, that it is clear how she was able to navigate the transition to a career as an adult actor..

The extended Boatwright family is a strong presence in the movie, but individuals end up feeling underbaked, as if they exist as a hivemind. Some family members flit in and out of the plot with indications that they have larger stories (particularly a cousin played by Christina Ricci), but we only learn a bit about them from Bone’s perspective. It’s a strong sense of community, which comes almost at the movie’s detriment, when it’s hard to keep all the blonde aunts separate from one another. The book probably has a lot to say about them, but the nature of adaptations is to narrow the scope of a story. It makes sense to keep the story more in Bone’s childhood perspective, even as the occasional narration provides an adult perspective looking back.

Bastard Out of Carolina won’t connect with everyone. It is a movie that dances on the edge of gratuity, and some audiences will feel that there is no reason to show as much of Bone’s suffering as the film does. But children like Bone are out there, and Bastard Out of Carolina tells her story to anyone who is able and willing to listen, and tells it with sensitivity and love.

Would I Recommend It: Yes, but take the trigger warnings seriously.

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