Producers: Reese Witherspoon and Lauren Neustadter Director: Olivia Newman Screenplay: Lucy Alibar Cast: Daisy Edgar-Jones, Taylor John Smith, Harris Dickinson, Michael Hyatt, Sterling Macer, Jr., David Strathairn, Garret Dillahunt, Ahna O’Reilly, Bill Kelly, Jayson Warner Smith, Logan Macrae, Eric Ladin, Jojo Regina, Luke David Blumm, Don Stallings, Will Bundon, Leslie France and Sam Anderson Distributor: Sony Pictures/Columbia
Delia Owens’ 2018 novel has had a long ride atop the best-seller lists, and its many fans will probably embrace this somewhat simplified but reasonably faithful adaptation by Lucy Alibar and Olivia Newman. But the movie is basically just banal Hallmark Hall of Fame fare whose primary virtue is to point up how weird the story is, making its popularity all the odder.
Of course, one can detect reasons behind the enormous success of “Where the Crawdads Sing.” One of its major themes is pervasive male abuse of women, a deep contemporary cultural concern. Another is societal hostility toward “the other,” the outsider, always a potent plot device. The setting in an exotic natural world is a point in its favor, as, of course, are its overarching elements of young love and murder mystery.
If all that sounds like a peculiar combination, it is. At least on screen the tale comes across as a mixture of “To Kill a Mockingbird” and a picture book of environmental biology, with a large dose of W.H. Hudson’s hoary old romantic adventure “Green Mansions” tossed in for good measure. The result is made even more bizarre by an ending that upends expectations and suggests that sometimes vigilante justice is acceptable.
The heroine of the piece is Catherine “Kya” Clark, whom we meet, in a narrative that jumps around chronologically, as a six-year old played by Jojo Regina. She’s the youngest child in a family that lives in a shack deep in the North Carolina swamp. For some reason she adores her father (Garret Dillahunt), though he’s a drunken lout who abuses his wife (Ahna O’Reilly) and kids, including her. Her mother understandably chooses to leave, and gradually the older children follow, with Jodie (Will Bundon) the last to depart. Kya remains with her dad, who tries to reform, until he disappears too, leaving her utterly alone.
For the mostly benighted residents of the nearby town, Kya becomes the Marsh Girl, a local legend rumored to have some witchy powers. But there are a few people who are kindly disposed toward her. One is lawyer Tom Milton (David Strathairn), who’s nice to her when she tries to go to school. The black owners of a general store, Mabel (Michael Hyatt) and Jumpin’ (Sterling Macer, Jr.), help her survive on her own. And young Tate Walker (Luke David Blumm) offers her friendship.
But Kya is basically solitary, gaining a knowledge of the swamp’s flora, fauna and fossils and making detailed drawings of birds, plants and shells. She grows into a beautiful young woman (now played by Daisy Edgar-Jones), whom Tate, now a handsome fellow (Taylor John Smith), teaches to read and write. They fall in love, of course, but he’s off to college at UNC-Chapel Hill, and though he pledges to return for July 4, he fails to keep his promise. ‘
Desolated, Kya allows herself to be romanced—and eventually bedded at a cheap motel—by Chase Andrews (Harris Dickinson), the local star quarterback, who turns out to be a cad, betrothed to another girl, and, when Kya rejects his further advances, as abusive as her father had been. Kya by this time has followed Tate’s advice and submitted her drawings to a publisher, becoming an established authority on the subject.
When Chase turns up dead in the swamp, however, the sheriff (Bill Kelly) charges her with the murder. While the severe prosecutor (Eric Ladin) presents a highly circumstantial case against her, she’s defended by old Milton, who charges the jury—and the town—with suspecting her on flimsy evidence because she’s never been one of them as her supporters Mabel, Jumpin’, Tate and Jodie (Logan Macrae)—now in army uniform—look on hopefully. Long after a verdict has come down, a sappy postscript in which Kya and Tate appear in old age, played by Leslie France and Sam Anderson, reveals what actually happened.
One does have to admit that visually the film is attractive, even if it has a glossily unrealistic tone. The costumes by Mirren Gordon-Crozier and production design by Sue Chan are detailed but never look genuinely aged, and though much of the footage was shot on location in Louisiana, the more intimate swamp sequences have an artificial appearance. The lack of authenticity is accentuated by the gauzy cinematography of Polly Morgan, which sometimes strains for an impressive effect, like the widescreen image in which the despondent Kya waits on the beach for Tate’s promised return, carefully posed on the left side of the screen, while July 4 fireworks go off in the distance on the right. Alan Edward Bell’s editing often stutters—understandable when the time shifts are so clunky—and Mychael Danna’s score is positively (and expectedly) soupy.
As to the cast, as the remote, ethereal heroine Edgar-Jones seems no more comfortable than the miscast Audrey Hepburn did as bird girl Rima in Mel Ferrer’s goofily misguided 1959 filmization of “Mansions,” and Strathairn overdoes his hesitant shtick while going full Atticus Finchy as her lawyer; Hyatt and Macer exaggerate the down-home lovability of the only blacks in the vicinity, turning Mabel and Jumpin’ into something perilously close to stereotypes, as Dillahunt does the cruelty of Kya’s father. Neither Smith nor Dickinson seems particularly at ease as the good and bad men in Kya’s life, and many of the secondary performances have a faintly amateurish quality, which is perhaps to be attributed to the inexperience of Newman, for whom this is a theatrical directorial debut, or the stilted dialogue provided by Alibar (or maybe Owens). Newman does, however, get an animated—if hardly subtle—turn from Regina as young Kya, and an even better one from Blumm as young Tate.
Given its enormous popularity—it has become, after all, one of the best-selling books of all time—one assumes there must be some magic to be found in Owens’ novel. If so, however, it hasn’t been successfully transferred to the screen despite the loving attention of the filmmakers, including producer Reese Witherspoon.