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Where the Crawdads Sing is the kind of tedious moral fantasy that fuels America’s misguided idealism. It’s an attempt at a complex tale about rejection, difference and survival. But the film, like the novel it’s based on, skirts the issues — of race, gender and class — that would texture its narrative and strengthen its broad thesis, resulting in a story that says more about how whiteness operates in a society allergic to interdependence than it does about how communities fail young people.
Directed by Olivia Newman (First Match), the film adaptation of Delia Owens’ popular and controversial novel of the same name tells the remarkable tale of a shy, reclusive girl raised in the marshes of North Carolina who finds herself embroiled in a grisly police investigation. Her name is Kya (Daisy Edgar-Jones of Normal People, Fresh and Under the Banner of Heaven), but to those in the neighboring town, whose residents abhor her, she is known simply as “Marsh Girl.” The account of her life is remarkable because it requires such a powerful suspension of disbelief, a complete abandonment of logic and total submission to the workaday beats of this story.
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Since its publication in 2018, Owens’ novel has garnered rabid praise and heavy criticism. Reese Witherspoon, one of the film’s producers, made it her Book Club pick in September of that year, and to date 12 million copies have been sold. Fans of Where the Crawdads Sing tend to admire its beatific descriptions of Kya’s world and ostensibly gripping narrative of a girl abandoned and disappointed by almost everyone in her life.
Those less enchanted by the style and the glorification of hyper-independence have pointed out Owens’ troubling treatment of Black characters, the whiffs of classism in her use of dialect and the eerie connections between the novel and Owens’ alleged involvement in a 1990s televised killing of a poacher in Zambia. That latter story in particular reveals troubling levels of white saviorism and condescension toward African countries. That Owens — already well-known before the novel — has managed to build an even more successful career despite details of her past resurfacing is bewildering.
Where the Crawdads Sing’s problems can be traced back to the source material. The story, adapted for the screen by Lucy Alibar (Beasts of the Southern Wild), opens with the murder of Chase Andrews (Harris Dickinson), a beloved resident of the fictional town of Barkley Cove. Cops stumble upon his dead body in the marsh and, after haphazardly scanning the perimeter, declare it a homicide.
Residents of the town, a judgmental and gossiping bunch, are quick to point fingers at Kya, a naturalist and loner, who has lived in the surrounding marshlands for 25 years. After the police arrest Kya (she tries but fails to escape into the verdant, grassy terrain), they send her to jail. Tom Milton (David Strathairn), a local lawyer who has known Kya since she was a barefoot child, decides to represent the young woman.
The film — admirably shot by DP Polly Morgan — stitches together scenes of a nervous Kya in court with flashbacks of her past. Occasionally, Kya, through voiceover, includes additional details about her relationships and feelings toward other people. The first flashback takes us to 1953, where shots of the marshland, colored by a warm, vivid palette, are interrupted by the gray, subdued reality of Kya’s upbringing. She is one of five children, who, in addition to her mother (Ahna O’Reilly), are abused by her alcoholic and temperamental father (Garret Dillahunt). One by one, beginning with her mother, Kya’s family members leave the marsh. Why none of them try to take the youngest child with them is never explained.
This plot hole leaves room to contrive a situation in which Kya, whose father eventually leaves too, lives alone in her tiny family house that sits on acres of marshland. It also allows the film to establish what will become Kya’s most important connection: her relationship with the Black couple who own a local grocery store, Mabel (Michael Hyatt) and Jumpin’ (Sterling Macer, Jr.).
Kya, with the help of this unsurprisingly thinly sketched couple, manages to cobble a life together. She wakes up at dawn to harvest mussels, which she sells to Jumpin’ in exchange for provisions. Mabel teaches her how to count, gives her treats and sews her beautiful dresses (a nod here to costume designer Mirren Gordon-Crozier’s fine work). Occasionally, Kya must dodge child services and hawkish developers.
Although Where the Crawdads Sing is keen on highlighting Kya’s hyper-independence, she survives thanks to the help of Mabel, Jumpin’ and eventually Tate Walker (Taylor John Smith). Tate, a diffident, blond-haired, blue-eyed boy from town, leaves Kya some seeds, teaches her how to read and write and encourages her gift for identifying and drawing the shells, insects, plants and animals of the marsh. Their relationship evolves slowly, in the manner of a predictably plotted YA novel.
Kya is a perplexing figure considering the twists and turns the film takes; for someone whose survival skills and instincts are repeatedly telegraphed, she comes across as dangerously naïve. Jojo Regina, who plays Kya as a child, and Edgar-Jones, who plays her as a young adult, try to make sense of her, but their performances can’t overcome the inconsistencies of what’s on the page.
More flashbacks — 1953, followed by 1962 and then 1968 — show us how Kya’s relationship to the world outside the marsh changes. She learns to love and trust. Her heart gets broken: Edgar-Jones’ most impressive scene is when Kya, upon realizing she has been abandoned again, breaks down on the beach. Morgan’s dexterity with lighting is evident here, and I’d be remiss not to mention the beauty of the film, shot on location in Louisiana’s thick marshes.
Over the years, Kya starts to believe in herself more. She grows less reserved, finds new ways to share her talent with the world and make more money. She even falls in love again. Couple this coming-of-age arc with the courtroom scenes (taking place in 1969) and Where the Crawdads resembles an odd amalgamation of a Nicholas Sparks film, The Help and To Kill a Mockingbird. But whereas the latter two examples contained a modicum of racial awareness, Where the Crawdads Sing is largely devoid of just that.
The narrative depends heavily on racial and gender stereotypes and classist thinking to operate. Mabel and Jumpin’ exist to help Kya survive. Kya’s beauty and delicateness are so over-emphasized that she comes off more manic pixie dream girl than misanthropic protagonist. There is over-reliance on well-timed bombshells to keep us distracted. For many people, Where the Crawdads Sing struck an emotional chord, but it’s worth considering what one has to ignore in order to get there.
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