Where the Crawdads Sing – film review

Any film based on a book usually has to sacrifice certain elements to get all the plot points in place. Otherwise, there’s just no way to put several hundred pages of story into a 90 – 120 minute screen work. But aficionados of Delia Owens’s enormously popular book, Where the Crawdads Sing, seem to agree that this adaptation at least sticks closely to the facts of the book.

What isn’t so agreed upon is whether the film – the Hollywood debut of Normal People’s Daisy Edgar-Jones – is worth the hype. Coming from Reese Witherspoon’s production company, the film is directed by Olivia Newman with a script by Lucy Alibar – both of whom have little feature film experience, not that that’s a crime. But it is a rather prosaic rendering of the story, which never really has the space to delve deeply into character.

Early on, we learn that a young man named Chase (Harris Dickenson) has been found dead, possibly murdered, near the swamp in North Carolina. The suspect is Kya, known disparagingly by the locals as ‘the marsh girl’. The talented and very English Edgar-Jones manages a decent southern U.S. accent as Kya. As a child in the 1950s, she was abandoned by her abused mother, then all her siblings similarly fled their violent father (Garret Dillahunt). He eventually leaves Kya too, so the poor girl (played by talented Jojo Regina) finds a way to be self-sufficient by diving for mussels near her swamp home and selling them to kindly African-American shopkeepers, Jumpin and Mabel (Sterling Macer J. and Michael Hyatt).

Fast-forward and Kya is an adult still living in the same place. She’s learnt to read and write thanks to the handsome ‘boy next door’, Tate (Taylor John Smith), and has an uncanny talent of drawing the swamp flora and fauna. Never mind that she seems remarkably well spoken for someone who never went to school, and her filthy clothes of childhood are replaced with clean and pressed stylish gear while her long locks have a glossy sheen to them. After all, this is still Hollywood.

The court case where Kya is on trial gives opportunities for flashbacks as her lawyer, Tom Milton (David Strathairn), pleads for the jury to remain impartial  rather than judging Kya on the rumours that have haunted her as ‘the marsh girl’.  Meanwhile, Kya’s nature drawings have been well received and she’s on the verge of having a book published.  But could it all come crashing down if she’s convicted of murder?

A little bit of background reading of Delia Owens reveals some fascinating information about her own life. The woman has evidently drawn on some real-life inspiration for aspects of this story. While the film version probably won’t be as popular as the book, it nicely showcases Edgar-Jones’s talents and offers some beautiful natural scenery, even if it’s not as compelling as it could and should have been.

Vicki Englund

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