WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Olivia Newman

Stars: Daisy Edgar Jones, David Strathairn, Harris Dickinson, Taylor John Smith, Jojo Regina, Sterling Macer jr, Garret Dillahunt, Michael Hyatt, Bill Kelly, Ahna O’Reilly.

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This film adaptation of Delia Owens’ bestselling 2018 novel is part murder mystery, part courtroom drama and part coming of age melodrama. It is a bit like To Kill A Mockingbird for the millennial generation. Fans of the novel will not be disappointed in this lush and handsomely mounted production as Lucy Alibar’s script remains faithful to the source material. This film adaptation has been championed by Reese Witherspoon who is a fan of the novel, which has sold over 12 million copies to date. 

The story is set in the 50s and 60s and centres around the character of Catherine Kya Clarke, who was raised in a small shack in the marshlands of North Carolina along with three older siblings and her mother and an abusive drunken father (Garret Dillahunt). One by one the family leave this depressing environment until Kya is left alone to fend for herself. Kya (played by Daisy Edgar Jones) is marginalised and an uneducated outsider in this community. However, she does find some support in this rather cold and petty town from Jumpin’ James Madison (Sterling Macer jr), who operates a small shop at the local mariner and shows her kindness by trading clothes and goods in exchange for the mussels she collects. Another local boy Tate Walker (Taylor John Smith) befriends Kya and teaches her to read and encourages her with her skilled and detailed drawings of the flora and fauna of the North Carolina marshlands and its ecosystem. 

But when Tate heads off to college to study, Kya once again finds herself alone, until she is approached by slick local rich kid and popular town jock Chase Andrews (Harris Dickinson, from Beach Bums, etc), who takes advantage of her naivety and trusting nature. 

For years, rumours and gossip have circulated the nearby town of Barkley Cove regarding the so-called “marsh girl”. So when Chase is found dead beneath a fire tower on the edge of the swamp the gossip soon links him to Kya. Even though there is a lack of evidence Kya is arrested and put on trial charged with his murder. Local lawyer Tom Milton (David Strathairn) comes out of retirement to defend her. Kya’s story emerges through a series of lengthy flashback sequences, and the film follows the nonlinear structure of the novel. 

Where The Crawdads Sing is the sophomore feature for director Olivia Newman, who has worked on tv series like Chicago Fire, etc. She brings an elegiac quality to the material, which is complemented by the beautiful cinematography of Polly Morgan, who captures the vast and beautiful expanses of the marshlands and swamps that play an important part in the story. Visually this is an impressive looking production that brings to life the settings that Owens described in her book. It was shot on location amongst the bayous of Louisiana and is very evocative and atmospheric.  

Daisy Edgar Jones (from Normal People, etc) is perfectly cast here and brings a feisty quality and strength to her performance as Kya and she embodies the resilient nature of her character, but she also captures her vulnerable side. Audiences will empathise with her and will be emotionally invested in the outcome of the trial. Jojo Regina plays the younger free-spirited Kya and she has a similar feisty quality. Strathairn brings dignity and Southern manners to his performance and his character is reminiscent of Atticus Finch. Macer brings grace and dignity to his role, one of the few sympathetic townsfolk.  

Alibar (who also co-wrote Beasts Of The Southern Wild, which also featured a swampy setting and marginalised swamp dwelling characters) and Newman also manage to work in themes of small-town pettiness and prejudices, social inequality, domestic abuse and violence against women, which gives the material a slightly harder edge. 

★★★☆

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