Delia Owens’ first novel, Where the Crawdads Sing, is one of the best-selling fiction books of the last few years, and last but not least, the new film version can help you understand why.
Director Olivia Newman and screenwriter Lucy Alibar (“Beasts of the Southern Wild”) streamline Owens’ elaborate narrative while staying true to her tone and themes, weaving a courtroom drama around a romance that’s also a hymn to individual resilience and the wonder of nature. Though it celebrates a fierce, independent heroine, the film – like the book – is as decent and comforting as a country club luncheon.
“Where the Crawdads Sing” is set on the coast of North Carolina (though filmed in Louisiana) and spends much of its time in the vast, sun-drenched wetlands its heroine calls home. The disapproving residents of the nearby hamlet of Barkley Cove refer to her as “the swamp girl”. In court, she is addressed as Catherine Danielle Clark. We know her as Kya.
Played by Jojo Regina as a child and then by Daisy Edgar-Jones (known for her role in Normal People), Kya is a compelling if not entirely coherent collection of well-known literary tropes and character traits. Abused and abandoned, she is like the orphan princess in a fairy tale, stoic in the face of adversity and skilled in the ways of survival. Brilliant and beautiful, tough and innocent, a born artist and intuitive naturalist, she’s a scapegoat and something of a superhero.
That is a lot. Edgar-Jones has the common sense — or perhaps the unabashed audacity — to play Kya as a fairly normal person who finds himself in circumstances that would be an understatement to describe as unlikely. Kya lives most of her life outside of human society, amidst the flora and fauna of the swamp, and at times she resembles the wild creature that the townspeople imagine her to be. Most of the time, however, she comes across as a skeptical, practical young woman who wants to be left alone except when she doesn’t want it.
Kya attracts the attention of two young men. One is a dreamy, blue-eyed fisherman’s son named Tate (Taylor John Smith) who shares her love of seashells, feathers and the creatures associated with them. Childhood companions, they become sweethearts as teenagers until Tate goes to college and Kya is mistaken for Chase (Harris Dickinson), a handsome guy whose body is eventually found at the base of a fire tower deep in the swamplands.
But at some point right at the beginning. The film begins with Chase’s death in October 1969. Kya is charged with murder and her trial alternates with the story of her life up to that point. Her mother (Ahna O’Reilly) and siblings are fleeing the violence of an abusive, alcoholic father (Garret Dillahunt), who eventually takes off too, leaving Kya with a metal motorboat, a porch fixer-up, and an inquisitive and creative mind .
“Where the Crawdads Sing” is set in the ’50s and ’60s, which the film claims were uneventful decades in America, particularly in the American South. Kya’s reclusive existence—she goes to school one day, doesn’t learn to read until Tate teaches her, and has no radio or television—feels a bit of an alibi for the film’s detachment from the story. The local shop where she sells shells and gas on her boat is run by a black couple, Jumpin’ (Sterling Macer Jr.) and Mabel (Michael Hyatt), who care for and protect her and don’t seem to have any problems (or children ) have their own.
Kya’s outsider status – reinforced by the presence of David Strathairn as her Atticus Finch-like defender – lends the film a notion of social interest. Equally faint is the touch of Southern Gothic that sometimes perfumes the swampy air. But for a tale of sex, murder, family secrets and class grudges, the temperature is awfully mild, as if a Tennessee Williams play had been sent to Nicholas Sparks for rewriting.
Where the crayfish sing
Rated PG-13. Wild but tame. Running time: 2 hours 5 minutes. In theatres.