Set in 1950s rural South Carolina, the story centers around Ruth Anne "Bone" Boatwright (Jena Malone) and her mother, Anney (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Initially, due to being born out of wedlock, Bone just lives with her mother and extended family in the poorer parts of town. Even though she loves Bone, Anney hasn't really grown up too much and gets tired from working to support her and Bone and is needed for attention, coupled with having to deal with the stigma from having a baby out of wedlock.
After her kind and hardworking husband Lyle Parsons (Dermot Mulroney) is killed in a car accident, Anney goes on to remarry Glen Waddell (Ron Eldard), who at first seems nice and caring. However, after Anney has a stillbirth, things head south really fast.
Includes examples of:
- Abusive Parents: Bone's stepfather is very abusive towards her, beating her, molesting her, molesting her while masturbating, and raping her in the climax.
- Coming of Age: More so in the novel.
- Convenient Miscarriage: Well, not exactly "convenient", Anney has a stillbirth and is unable to have children again.
- Ill Girl: Aunt Ruth that Bone briefly stays with, who later succumbs to cancer.
- A Date with Rosie Palms: In the original novel, while Anney is giving birth, Glen does this while touching Bone. In the movie, however, he just molests her.
- Deep South: More specifically in small ruralish town of 1950s Carolina (as the title states).
- Disappeared Dad: Plays a small part in the conflict, as, in the novel, Anney was in a coma when she gave birth, so she couldn't lie and say she was married, while, in the movie, Bone's grandmother refused to put the name of Bone's birth-father on the certificate (after she ran him out of town).
- Forceful Kiss: Glen gives one to Bone after he threatens her.
- From Bad to Worse: As the quote above implies, Bone starts off in a bad situation, and it only gets worse from there.
- Hair-Trigger Temper: Glen, though this is more obvious in the book, however, him having this is what costs him his job.
- I Want My Mommy!: Bone does this a couple of the times when she's in the hospital. The second instance is rather crushing.
- Mama Bear:
- When Aunt Raylene finds out that Glen had beaten Bone, she tells her uncles to "Kill him."
- When she finds Glen raping Bone, Anney's response is to hit him over the head with a bottle. But she still sides with him over Bone.
- Narrator: Laura Dern as the adult Bone.
- No-Holds-Barred Beatdown: Glen gets the holy hell beat out of him by Bone's uncles.
- Noodle Incident: It's not really said what happened to Bone's actual father but, in the movie, according to Bone's narration, her grandmother ran him out of town.
- Only Known by Their Nickname: Our protagonist is named Ruth Anne, but she has been called Bone since birth, as, to her uncle, "she didn't look much bigger than his knucklebone".
- Parents as People: Anney would be a tragic deconstruction. You see, she loves her daughter, Bone, but, due to being so young and feeling lonely, she wanted more attention, leading her to take up with a nice man named Lyle, who dies, and, wanting to fill the void, decided to take up with Glen.
- Parental Abandonment: Anney, still in love with Glen, at the end, leaves Bone with Raylene and Earl
- Parental Substitute: Though it didn't last long, Aunt Ruth plays this role to Bone. Later on, Raylene takes over this role.
- Rape as Drama
- Teen Pregnancy: Though this isn't too clear in the movie, the book states that Anney was 15 when she had Bone.
- Title Drop: In the closing narration."Would I be as strong as she had been? As hungry for love? As desperate, determined and ashamed? I wouldn't know but I was already who I was gonna be. Someone like her, like my mama, a Boatwright, a bastard, a bastard out of Carolina."
- What Happened to the Mouse?: Bone has a little sister, Reese, but she practically disappears in the film after Anney's marriage to Glen.
- Would Hurt a Child: Glen has no qualms about this whatsoever.