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'Where the Crawdads Sing' Champions Loners but Plays to the Crowd

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Published July 20, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated July 27, 2022 at 8:55 a.m.


Edgar-Jones plays an ostracized "marsh girl" who could pass for an Instagram influencer in Newman's literary adaptation. - COURTESY OF SONY PICTURES
  • Courtesy Of Sony Pictures
  • Edgar-Jones plays an ostracized "marsh girl" who could pass for an Instagram influencer in Newman's literary adaptation.

Forget the Gentleminions! This week in theaters, it's all about the crawdads. The movie based on Delia Owens' mega-best-selling novel Where the Crawdads Sing grossed $17 million over the weekend. For a modestly budgeted drama aimed at women, that's a big score.

Controversy is brewing around the film, as Owens faces renewed questions about her involvement in the 1995 murder of a suspected poacher on the Zambian elephant preserve that she used to run with her husband. But the author's questionable past doesn't seem to have hurt the film's profits. On a rainy Monday night, I found a full house waiting to see this old-fashioned melodrama about a girl's coming of age in the coastal marshlands of North Carolina.

The deal

In the early 1960s, in a small Southern town, young Kya Clark (Daisy Edgar-Jones) goes on trial for the alleged murder of golden boy Chase Andrews (Harris Dickinson). Public opinion is against Kya, who has lived alone in the marshes since childhood, supporting herself by selling mussels gathered from the tidal waters. As the imprisoned Kya tells her story to her kindly lawyer (David Strathairn), we see her life play out in flashback.

Kya's childhood was a string of losses: Her abusive father drove her mother and siblings from their marshland home and then disappeared, leaving her to fend for herself. As a teen, she found romance with swoony Tate (Taylor John Smith), who taught her to read and set her on a lifelong path of naturalism, encouraging her to sell her watercolor paintings of marsh fauna to a publisher. But when Tate went off to college, the so-called "marsh girl" found herself on a trajectory that eventually led her to the courtroom.

Will you like it?

Directed by Olivia Newman and produced by Reese Witherspoon, Where the Crawdads Sing is a very Hollywood kind of coming-of-age-slash-empowerment fable. In a movie like this, it's fine for the heroine to be an outcast reviled by everyone in her fictional small town, as long as she also checks certain boxes: 1) be dewy-eyed, soft-spoken and attractive; 2) never do anything genuinely eccentric or off-putting; and 3) be irresistible to every handsome young man she meets.

Readers have praised Owens' book for its loving depiction of the coastal wetlands and the teeming life they support. In the movie, however, we don't get much information about the landscape, just lovely visuals of seaside sunsets, birds on the wing and trees draped with Spanish moss. The focus is the story, which is basically a wish-fulfillment fantasy about a social pariah who makes good — a more decorous version of V.C. Andrews' book Heaven.

Throughout the film, we're told that the townspeople regard Kya as a filthy, feral creature — some even deride her as a "missing link." But what we see on-screen is a sweet, fresh-faced young woman who wears her hair a little long for the era and has the prescience to dress in adorable cottage-core ensembles. Yes, this is a hidebound small town at midcentury, and yes, Edgar-Jones does a good job of conveying Kya's muted suffering. But it's still hard to buy the level of opprobrium that we see heaped on our heroine. Her two love interests, both as dull as Ken dolls, don't seem to find much wrong with her.

This is a movie about the allure of being an isolated outcast that hardly touches on the reality of being either of those things or the fear that, on some level, you deserve the bad treatment you're getting. There's one short and touching sequence in which Kya, recently abandoned by Tate, watches the town's distant fireworks, sleeps on the beach and wakes weeping in despair. For the most part, though, the filmmakers are too busy chronicling the romantic entanglements and the half-baked courtroom drama to focus on the day-to-day struggles of Kya's life.

I get it. Where the Crawdads Sing is designed to appeal to everyone who's ever felt left out (that's most of us) and dreamed of being publicly vindicated (again, most of us). It's maximally generic so that viewers can easily imagine themselves in Kya's place, and such stories have an enduring appeal. The mystique attached to the "wild child" of nature is a powerful one, enhanced by Newman's pretty visuals, and even I confess to tearing up at one point.

But if you're seeking a movie with genuine wildness in it, or basically any element that you wouldn't find in a Nicholas Sparks adaptation, look elsewhere.

If you like this, try...

Cross Creek (1983; rentable): In Where the Crawdads Sing, Kya eventually becomes an author-illustrator, reminding me of this Florida-set period piece in which Mary Steenburgen portrays Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, author of The Yearling, as she struggles to write her novel and keep her orange grove alive.

Coal Miner's Daughter (1980; rentable): For a grittier treatment of a plucky heroine growing up in rural Southern poverty, it doesn't get much better than Michael Apted's biopic of country singer Loretta Lynn.

An Angel at My Table (1990; Kanopy, HBO Max, rentable): Want to see a movie about a genuinely off-putting creative woman who beat the odds? As depicted in this early Jane Campion film, New Zealand author Janet Frame (Kerry Fox) was hospitalized for mental illness and nearly received a lobotomy. The doctors changed their minds when her fiction won a national prize.