Map of the World, A (1999) - Synopsis
As a mother who’s trying to cope with raising two little daughters, her part-time job as a school nurse, and helping her husband run their "working" farm, Alice Goodwin (Sigourney Weaver) has an unflappable, almost whimsical attitude towards the complexities of life. But her outspoken "mouth" reflecting her droll perspective on human nature is often wrongly misinterpreted by the simple folk in the rural Wisconsin town where they live. As relative "newcomers," the townsfolk treat Alice and her husband, Howard (David Strathairn) as outsiders anyway, and their only real friends are another young couple, Dan and Theresa Collins (Julianne Moore), who also have two little girls. Alice and Theresa have become best friends and often babysit each other’s children.
One morning, while babysitting for Theresa’s children, as well as her own having promised to take them swimming in the pond on the farm Alice is momentarily distracted as she searches for her bathing suit. A few minutes later, she is shocked and horrified to find Theresa’s two-year-old daughter Lizzy floating face-down in the pond. Although Alice quickly pulls Lizzy out of the water and immediately gives her CPR, the child remains comatose and, a few days later, she dies.
Theresa’s pain and loss is immeasurable, and so is Alice’s, but she is more numbed by the terrible pain of guilt. And while life has taken on a whole new dimension for Alice, with which she is unprepared to contend, the community now sees her as the person solely responsible for this great tragedy, instead of empathizing with her and realizing that it could happen to anyone. Suddenly, Alice is seen as a reckless, irresponsible woman, unpredictable in her ways, and Alice cannot help but see herself as worthless.
In the midst of this turmoil of guilt and grief, an altogether astonishing thing happens: a young boy at the school accuses Alice of sexual abuse and she is abruptly arrested, taken away from her family and imprisoned because she and her husband cannot raise the $100,000 required for bail. The charges seem totally false we will learn that what actually happened is that the boy spit a mouthful of medicine in her face and she impulsively slapped him. Again, another moment in time that cannot be recalled, and as her life spins even further out of control, Alice, still paralyzed with guilt over Lizzy’s drowning, has no will to defend herself.
In prison, Alice is almost a willing object of ridicule and abuse by the other inmates. Meanwhile, her husband is desperately trying to take care of their children and run the farm, and their prison visits are full of misunderstandings and anger. But the love they feel for each other still survives, changes, but grows stronger as her husband, against her wishes, sells their beloved farm to raise the money for her bail.
At the trial, the forgiving Theresa takes the stand in her defense and the truth about the sexual abuse charges are revealed by the skillful lawyer (Arliss Howard) who has taken on Alice’s case. After she is acquitted, Alice and her family move to the city to start a new life, and Alice tries to find her way in the world, in the same way, as a child after her mother died, she drew "a map of the world" to try to understand where she was.