In 1997 the theatrical and video releases of the film were banned by Canada's Maritime Film Classification Board. The video was eventually granted release upon appeal.
The film won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Casting for a Miniseries or a Special (Linda Lowy) and was nominated for Outstanding Directing for a Miniseries or a Special (Anjelica Huston), Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Miniseries or a Special (Glenne Headly), and Outstanding Made for Television Movie (Amanda DiGiulio, Gary Hoffman). It was screened in the Un Certain Regard section at the 1996 Cannes Film Festival.
Ruth Anne, nicknamed "Bone" Boatwright, is a young girl growing up in Greenville, South Carolina in the 1950s. Born out of wedlock to Anney, Bone lives with her mother and their extended family in a poor part of town. Anney loves Bone, but is still very much a child herself, tired out from working and needy for attention and adoration. Bone and Anney nearly always have to face the shame of the "ILLEGITIMATE" stamp on Bone's birth certificate. When the county courthouse burns down, Anney is happy that a copy of Bone's birth certificate no longer exists.
After her kind, hardworking first husband, Lyle Parsons, the father of Bone's half-sister, is killed in an automobile accident, Anney remarries a man named Glen Waddell, who seems attentive until Anney and Glen's baby dies at birth. Glen first molests Bone while waiting in the car for the birth of his child. Frustrated by the loss of his eagerly-anticipated son, Anney's inability to have more children, and his own inability to manage his temper and maintain steady employment, Glen begins to physically and sexually abuse Bone regularly, beating her in the bathroom. Bone wakes her mother up in the middle of the night, barely able to walk because of the immense pain she is in. Anney takes her to the hospital, where the doctor berates Anney for beating the child so badly that her coccyx is broken. The only thing Bone says is 'Mama.' Anney takes Bone to the car, leaving the hospital against the doctor's wishes, and slaps Glen's hand away as he tries to comfort the girl. Anney is saddened and angered by her new husband's behavior towards her child and takes Bone to her sister Alma's house to recuperate. However, once Bone is better, Anney returns to Glen after he swears to never touch Bone again.
While reading with her mama at the cafe, Anney asks Bone to go and stay with her Aunt Ruth since she is very sick. Ruth asks Bone about Glen and if he has ever hurt her. Bone says no and the two grow close listening to gospel music on the radio. After a visit from Dee Dee, Ruth dies of sickness. At Aunt Ruth's funeral, Bone's Aunt Raylene finds her in the bathroom falling over drunk after drinking too much alcohol and when she tries to take her to a bed, she discovers lashes on her legs and alerts the girl's uncles, Earle, Wade, and Travis, and another man, who beat Glen unconscious. Bone is sent to live with her aunts, and eventually tells her mother that she is allowed to love Glen, but that Bone will never come home to him again. Eventually, Glen comes around while the aunts are out, trying to force her to come back. When she fights back, he punches and then rapes her. Anney discovers the rape and breaks a bottle over Glen's head, causing him to bleed, pulls and kicks him off of Bone, then carries her out of the house to her car while screaming at Glen. Glen stumbles out of the house after Anney, screaming his apologies and saying he can't live without her. Anney yells at him to stay away and puts Bone into her car. When Glen gets his hand on Anney, she pushes him away and gets into her car. Glen then leans against the car door and repeatedly smashes his head against it, screaming for Anney to kill him. Instead, she strokes his head in forgiveness, believing he will never hurt Bone again. Ultimately, Anney returns to Glen.
Moments after, Bone is taken to the hospital by her Aunt Raylene. When a cop attempts to question her about who brutalized her, she refuses to reveal that it was Glen and calls out for her Momma who is nowhere to be found. In the end, Bone is allowed to stay with her Aunt Raylene and Uncle Earle, far away from the reach of those who would harm her. Her mother visits one final time to deliver to her the copy of her birth certificate without the mark of "ILLEGITIMATE", and apologizes for what happened, before driving away to rejoin Glen. Bone remains with her Aunt Raylene, and with this final, tearful goodbye, she cries for her mother's sacrifice and for the freedom she has at last achieved. Her final words are voiced in the narration by Laura Dern.
"Who had Momma been? What'd she wanted to be, or do before I was born? Once I was born, her hopes turned, and I climbed up her life like a flower reaching for the sun. Her life had folded into mine. Who would I be when I was 15, 20, 30? Would I be as strong as she had been? As hungry for love? As desperate, determined and ashamed? I wouldn't know that I was already who I was gonna be. Someone like her, like my Momma. A Boatwright. A bastard. A bastard outta Carolina." The film ends with Bone saying, "I love you, Momma."Jennifer Jason Leigh as Anney Boatwright
Ron Eldard as Glen Waddell
Glenne Headly as Ruth
Lyle Lovett as Wade
Jena Malone as Ruth Anne "Bone" Boatwright
Kelsey Elizabeth Boulware as Bone at age 4
Dermot Mulroney as Lyle Parsons
Christina Ricci as Dee Dee
Michael Rooker as Earle
Diana Scarwid as Raylene
Susan Traylor as Alma
Grace Zabriskie as Granny
Laura Dern as Narrator (voice over)
Lindley Mayer as Reese
Pat Hingle as Mr. Waddell
Richard Todd Sullivan as Travis
Jamison Stewart as Grey
Timothy Stewart as Garvey
Jeffrey Pillars as Truck Driver
Rick Warner as Young Clerk
Joe Maggard as Man at Cafe
D.L. Anderson as Woman at Cafe
Nelson George as Justice of the Peace
Gene Dann as Worker
Jim Gloster as Intern
Derin Altay as Mrs. Parsons
Sue Ellen Yates as Mr. Waddel's wife
Sonny Shroyer as Sheriff
Jerry Winsett as Brother Calvin
J.C. Quinn as Officer
Janice McQueen Ward as Neighbor (uncredited)