Set in an affluent neighbourhood of the San Fernando Valley in 1987, the film recounts the life of a seemingly unremarkable homemaker, Carol White (played by Julianne Moore) who develops multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS, also known as "Twentieth-Century Disease"). MCS is a medically controversial diagnosis in which a person develops allergic reactions to the visible and invisible toxins found in everyday household and industrial chemicals.
Carol passes her days with activities such as gardening, taking clothes to the dry cleaners, and attending aerobics classes. Her marriage is stable but devoid of emotional intimacy, and her son is actually a stepson from her husband's previous marriage. Similarly, her friendships are polite but distant.
As she goes about her routine, she slowly begins to develop unpredictable and strange bodily reactions, such as persistent exhaustion, uncontrollable coughing (when surrounded by truck exhaust while driving), asthma-like symptoms (at a baby shower), nose bleeds (when getting a perm at a hair salon), vomiting, and eventually convulsions (at the dry cleaners).
Doctors are able to isolate only one chemical she reacts to after she undergoes an allergen test; milk, which she drinks frequently in the movie without incident. Doctors are at a loss of how to help her cope or cure her. She attends some psychotherapy sessions but does not gain any insight into her condition.
After seeing an ad at her community centre, she eventually resorts to moving to the New Age/religious retreat in the desert called Wrenwood, which is designed to help people suffering from MCS recover.
1995 Boston Society of Film Critics Awards - Best Cinematography - Alex Nepomniaschy
1995 Seattle International Film Festival - American Independent Award - Todd Haynes
1996 Rotterdam International Film Festival - FIPRESCI Prize Special Mention - Todd Haynes