Based on the best selling 2019 novel of the same name, Where the Crawdads Sing, directed by Olivia Newman, is a magical and muddy modern fairytale of a beaten down woman triumphing over her oppressors in 1950s North Carolina. It weaves a captivating, although heavy handed at times, story of romance, coming of age and murder mystery that will leave you wistfully yearning for the lawless freedom of the marsh.
This debut novel by Delia Owens was popularized by its inclusion in Reece Witherspoon’s Book Club. Indeed much of the hubbub around this film comes from Witherspoon’s position as producer, and the original song Carolina that Taylor Swift wrote for the soundtrack. Some film goers may be put off by the recent controversy surrounding the author of the original book Delia Owens, but Where the Crawdads Sing stands alone as a modern fable of female independence and overcoming social isolation.
The movie (and the book) follows the life of Kya (Daisy Edgar-Jones) in twin storylines: one following her life growing up in isolation deep in the swamp surrounding Barkley Cove, learning about love and trust, while writing a series of scientific biology books on the native flora and fauna; and the other detailing a trial in which she (the ‘Marsh Girl) stands accused of the muder. Confused? So was I! However, if you persevere through the two hours of gritty, emotional turmoil, there are some gems to be found deep within the swamp.
In the ‘flashback’ timeline of the 1950s, the child of an abusive drunk father (‘Pa’ played by Garrett Dillahunt), Kya is abandoned at 6 years old as first her mother, then her siblings leave for the promise of a better life. Eventually even her tormentor leaves as well, and young Kya (played by Jojo Regina) is left utterly alone. Through sheer force of will, and the help of two African-American general store owners: Jumpin (Sterling Macer Jr) and Mabel (Michelle Hyatt) she survives and ekes out her own space in the world of the swamp. Her isolation and rough, almost feral, life lead to rumors in the town of the mythic half-human ‘Marsh Girl’ – endowing her with an air of cruel mystery and casting her as an outsider.
However, like anyone the ‘Marsh Girl’ longs for companionship. She breaks her isolation twice in the name of love and both times audiences are let down by the one-dimensional nature of these two characters.. First she is taught to read, and begin to trust someone other than herself, by the wholesome fisherman turned college boy: Tate (Taylor John Smith). Second, she meets the handsome and (relatively) wealthy quarterback Chase Anderson (Harris Dickinson). Her second dalliance is cataclysmic, and causes her peaceful swamp life to be shattered as she is charged with murder and hauled before the scrutiny of the town.
Set against the wildness of the North Carolina swamps and marshes you can lose yourself in the boughs of Spanish moss covered cypress trees as your imagination runs riot. The cinematography conveys rich meaning through each languid shot of the murky waters and soaring birds. This contrasts nicely with the jarring courtroom scenes to create an air of discomfort and disquiet.
Kya’s only allies throughout her life are those who are looked down upon by the Barkley Cove elites – Jumpin and Mabel the black store owners, and Tate, the working class fisherman. While this film is constructed from the point of view of a white character, Newman does well to hint at the racial tensions of the time, but could do better by delving into greater detail.
This might not be a film for everyone, but it is definitely worthwhile seeing if you are a fan of romance, murder myteries or swamps. Film buffs expecting a revolutionary masterpiece may be disappointed, but this film does provide a feast for the eyes and the heart. Ever the outcast, Kya’s perseverance acts as a calling card to anyone who has felt left out or discriminated against. Bring your tissues if you are easily moved.