Given the choice of depicting the awfulness of child abuse implicitly or explicitly, first-time director Anjelica Huston takes a blunt, at times shockingly graphic approach with Bastard Out of Carolina. And it cost her: Ted Turner, whose TNT honchos originally signed Huston to adapt Dorothy Allison’s uncompromisingly tough 1992 novel, went on to reject her work as too disturbing to air on his network. Of course, Huston’s unflinching look at the unhappy life of young Ruth Anne Boatwright in 1950s South Carolina also won the novice director plenty of ink when the project was picked up by Showtime: In the subsequent publicity flurry, she won points for artistic integrity, while the cable network got to crow about its cojones.
The promotional sideshow, however, is beside the point. Bastard is a powerful, sensitively made adaptation. The cast does beautiful ensemble work. And Huston has coaxed some terrific performances, particularly from 11-year-old newcomer Jena Malone as Ruth Anne (nicknamed Bone for her knucklebone size at birth), Jennifer Jason Leigh as Bone’s trapped and tired single mother looking for a bit of affection, and Ron Eldard (from TV’s Men Behaving Badly — or as I prefer to remember him, from ER) as ”Daddy Glen,” the volatile, violent man who takes out all his rage on the defenseless body of his stepdaughter.
Scriptwriter Anne Meredith streamlines Allison’s novel, focusing on young Bone’s misery and her growing resolve to fight back. Born into a family of hard-luck women who pass along the knowledge of men’s weaknesses from generation to generation (Diana Scarwid and the wonderful Glenne Headly play the Boatwright aunts; Grace Zabriskie, the sinewy grandmother), she becomes the protector of her younger sister (Lindley Mayer) and watches, silently, as her mother becomes embroiled, against all warnings, in a relationship with Glen. Our discomfort at watching Bone suffer Glen’s attacks is acute; at times it’s distressing just to think that an actress as young as Malone is playing the role, no matter how good the performance.
Which brings me back to the issue of implicit versus explicit visual interpretation. Here, for instance, the author describes a climactic confrontation between stepdaughter and stepfather. ”He kicked again, and his boot slipped along the side of my head, cutting my ear so that blood gushed,” Allison writes, telling Bone’s story in the first person. ”Then that boot thudded into my belly and I rolled sideways, retching bile down my right arm.” Yes, it’s all right there on the page. But we can stand a lot more violence in print than we can when we’re watching a real little girl playing a fictional girl with blood, however fake, coming out of her mouth, thrown around by a real adult playing a man who rapes his stepdaughter. When Huston grabs us by the eyeballs and forces us to watch such sickening violence, we become voyeurs — and feel ashamed.
The brutal scenes that scared off Turner are what made headlines for Bastard. But Huston’s longer-lasting accomplishment in adapting this formidable book is in creating a sense of blood ties and love, even among family members as beaten down as the Boatwrights. It’s in the quieter details — Bone with her arm around her kid sister in the backseat of a car, Leigh as Mama (emotionally accessible, even in her latest accent and wig) spreading ketchup on crackers to feed her hungry girls — that the director best captures the story’s heartbreak. The agonizing moments that convey what it’s like for Bone to feel helpless and afraid of Daddy Glen even when he’s not torturing her are where the art is. The pornographic violence is artifice. B+