Where The Crawdads Sing

If Where The Crawdads Sing was only about a girl living in the North Carolina marsh who, after being abandoned by her entire family, learned how to survive and grew up to become a successful nature illustrator, the movie would have been a compelling one.  Unfortunately, the story doesn’t have anywhere near the confidence that Kya (Daisy Edgar-Jones) has in herself.  Instead of following through on the themes of independence and self-reliance, the story chooses a safer approach by including a plethora of subplots that are under-cooked and unconvincing.

When Kya turns nineteen, she falls into a bland relationship with childhood friend Tate (Taylor John Smith).  He teaches her how to read, but abruptly drops her when he goes off to college.  This sets up Kya’s disastrous rebound relationship with bad boy Chase (Harris Dickinson), who clearly is bad news from the moment he appears on screen.  After Chase turns up dead, all eyes turn to Kya, the “marsh girl”, who had every reason to kill the jerk.  She’s arrested and charged with his murder with evidence so flimsy it would never have passed the Law & Order test.  Fortunately, she has retired lawyer Tom (David Strathairn) on her side.  While the trial plays out, the movie posits that one of the three positive men in her life (brother Jodie, shopkeeper Jumpin or ex Tate) did the deed.  The trial is a sham, and only delays the big reveal at the end which genuinely surprised me.

Crawdads is a decent movie when it isn’t awash with melodrama and cliches.  Edgar-Jones makes Kya a sympathetic hero, a subtle mix of curiosity, innocence and self-determination.  She’s a naturalist who sees her environment as a solution instead of a problem.  The movie features another solidly understated turn by Strathairn, who is now in a category by himself for playing worn-down men who still have something left to give.  As Mabel and Jumpin, Michael Hyatt and Sterling Macer Jr. are convincing as the shopkeepers who help Kya get by.  The movie is excellently photographed as well.  Crawdads frustrated me.  I wanted to spend more time with the elements I liked, but kept getting forced into the equivalent of a Lifetime movie.  Fans of the book will love it.  Those who have not read the book will probably wonder what the fuss was about.  Not recommended.

Deep within the swampy heart of Where the Crawdads Sing is a moving story about a young girl’s emergence from a broken home to a life of independence and self-reliance.  That story, set in the 1950s and told in flashbacks, focuses on the life of young Kya (Jojo Regina) and her family growing up in the North Carolina marsh.  Her father, Pa (Garret Dillahunt) returned home from WWII with demons that he tried to drown with alcohol.  He turns into an angry drunk though, and Ma (Ahna O’Reilly) packs up and abandons her family the morning after a night of his physical abuse.  Over the span of several years, Kya’s two sisters and her brother Jodie leave as well.  He asks her to join him, but she doesn’t want to leave.  Instead, she learns how to stay out of her father’s way and only to approach him when he’s sober.  After a period of uneasy but uneventful coexistence, Pa disappears and is never seen again.

With no family or relatives in the area, Kya learns how to survive on her own.  Despite her rugged existence, she never sees nature as a problem or something to be endured.  Instead, Kya chooses to live in harmony with it.  She digs mussels before daybreak and sells them to the general store in town.  She grows her own food, and her ability to survive on her own earns her the nickname “swamp girl”.  If you were to look up rugged individualism in the dictionary, a picture of Kya would probably accompany the definition.

If Crawdads had continued to explore those themes, the movie would have been a compelling one.  I can understand why Reese Witherspoon was attracted to the story.  (She is one of several executive producers.)  Kya has a lot of the same qualities as Cheryl Strayed, Witherspoon’s character in Wild.  That movie, one of my favorites from 2014, had the courage to tell its story without trying to garner sympathy for Cheryl.  It also refused to be sentimental about her past or her drive for personal redemption.  Crawdads, unfortunately, doesn’t believe that the story of a woman toughing it out alone is enough.  Instead, it includes other plot devices that are never as interesting as Kya and her character’s evolution as a naturalist and an artist.

The movie’s present is set in the late 1960s.  The plot is set into motion when the body of Chase Andrews (Harris Dickinson) is found at the bottom of a fire tower.  Based on where he was and wounds on the back of his head, the police figure that the man was murdered.  After some modest legwork, they learn that he had been in a relationship with Kya.  That relationship had ended badly, and she was overhead threatening to kill him if he ever touched her again.  Because nobody in town likes the swamp girl, she’s arrested on some flimsy physical evidence and yelling at Chase after he hits her in the face.

Fortunately, retired lawyer Tom Milton (David Strathairn) has decided to represent her.  He’s always felt awful over how the townspeople have treated her and spoken of her over the years, and sees the trial as an extension of that animosity.  As the trial proceeds, recent flashbacks reveal that Kya had two relationships, one with childhood friend and nice guy Tate (Taylor John Smith) as well as with the bad dude she is accused of killing.  In the end, Kya is found not guilty, and I never expected another outcome.  The film’s coda answers the question of who killed Chase, and I admit that I was a bit surprised by the reveal.  If only the story had maintained that level of rawness and ingenuity throughout.

While watching Crawdads, I couldn’t help but compare the plot to a stew.  Given its North Carolina setting, I know this is probably a terrible metaphor.  Who settles down for a bowl of hot stew in this part of the country, right?  Regardless, Crawdads is a stew that just didn’t come together.  I liked several of the ingredients, but not enough of them to recommend it.  I’m fully aware that I’m not a member of this movie’s target audience, and I expect those who have read and loved the book will enjoy it much more than I did. Ultimately, the movie that I watched wasn’t a good enough stew.  Good broth, decent meat, but the potatoes were overcooked and the vegetables were under-cooked.  I enjoyed what I could and endured what I didn’t as best as I could.

Among the ingredients I liked were Kya’s story growing up, how she figures out how to sustain herself without being able to read, how she becomes friends with the grocers in town, Mabel (Michael Hyatt) and Jumpin’ (Sterling Macer Jr.).  They, along with David Strathairn’s Tom, were a trio of nice, worn-in characters that felt real to me.

Speaking of Strathairn, he’s carving out a niche of paying men who are like long-burning candles.  They may be nearing the end of their life, but they still burn flickering passion and energy.  As with Nomadland, Nightmare Alley and now this movie, he makes it look so effortless, playing a role that is completely unassuming and understated.  It takes a lot of talent and discipline to play a part as understated as he can do.

Daisy Edgar-Jones, another young Brit having a lash at an American accent, does a nice job here.  She’s good in Crawdads, but she’s excellent in FX/Hulu’s Under the Banner of Heaven.  I would argue the latter is her breakthrough performance, but because of the nature of streaming, I suspect more people will notice her for the first time in this movie.  That’s a shame because she’s really at the mercy of the plot in CrawdadsHeaven is so much better than this movie in practically every way, and if you haven’t seen it, I can’t recommend it enough.

Unlike Heaven, Edgar-Jones has to sell two romantic plot lines that I never bought into.  First is her functional-yet-bland romance with Tate.  He’s a positive influence on her life, teaching her how to read and encouraging her artistic development. However, their romance is oddly chaste and the two actors lack chemistry.  Even worse, Tate makes the cliched choice of leaving his girl behind so that he can go off to college in the big city.  I never for a second believed that he would spend a year with his true love, only to meekly cave in and take his father’s advice.  I understand that Tate’s dad wouldn’t want him to turn into a rumpled baseball hat like he did.  (He’s actually a fisherman.)  But Tate is not a smart man, so he makes the choice that he and everyone in the audience knows he’ll regret.

Even though Tate isn’t much of a character, he’s nowhere near as bad of a plot contrivance as Chase.  He’s the stereotypical “bad boyfriend”, stating how he never tried to change her but only ever wanted her for sex.  The movie implies that Kya fell into that relationship on the rebound from Tate, which would make sense if Chase was in any way likable.  He, however, is bad news from the get-go, trying to force Kya to have sex with her on their first date.  He’s such a creep, I never cared what happened to him or why he was murdered.

Based on how the plot plays out, I can see the need for a character like Chase, since his fate is what necessitates a trial.  However, there’s no need for the story to have both a clear-cut good guy and a cad.  Tom (or Jumpin’ or Mabel) could have taught Kya how to read, and Chase could have been more nuanced.  Instead, Tom wears the white hat while Chase dons the black hat.

Not content to with having Kya deal with competing bad boyfriends, Crawdads also includes a murder trial.  I love trials and procedurals.  What Crawdads offered up as a trial was simply incredulous.  The only physical evidence that the police have that indicates Kya was with Chase when he died was fibers off of a hat in Kya’s house.  First, there’s no way to prove when the fibers got onto his clothes.  Second, the police retrieved the hat without a search warrant.  There was no murder weapon, no witnesses to the crime, no evidence that Kya was even in the area at the time of the murder.  Comparatively speaking, even Law & Order would never have had a trial based on evidence so flimsy.  The judge should have thrown out the case after opening remarks.

Crawdads wants to have a trial, so it gives us one.  After successfully refuting the state’s physical evidence and their one witness to Kya’s outburst, Tom patiently explains how it would have been improbable (but not impossible) for Kya to have committed the deed completely unseen by anyone else.  Perhaps sensing that the case is going too easily, the movie briefly turns into a whodunnit by teasing that one of the three decent men in her life (Tate, Jumpin’ or Jodie) probably killed Chase.  That would have been an interesting angle to explore, either within the trial itself or immediately afterwards, but the question of someone other than Kya being responsible is only just a ruse.

I didn’t read the book Crawdads is based on before seeing the movie.  Google tells me that the book has sold over fifteen million copies, so people obviously like it.  The movie reminded me of another book that was well regarded before it was turned into a movie: The Goldfinch.  Goldfinch hasn’t sold as many copies as Crawdads, but it did win the Pulitzer Prize.  The two books couldn’t be more different, but their movie adaptations both had me wondering what was in the books that wasn’t on screen.  I’ve since learned that the movie changed some parts of the story.  For example, Chase was already married when he started his relationship with Kya.  The book also delves into how Kya pulled off Chase’s murder.  

Olivia Newman’s direction was serviceable but nothing special.  The scenes where the actors simply talk were among the best.  The best scenes are when we see Kya existing on her own or in nature.  There’s a sense of patient reflection in them that is missing from a lot of movies that I appreciated.  Unfortunately, the intimate scenes between Kya and Tate were surprisingly awkward and lacking passion, and the trial scenes were flat and uninteresting.

On the plus side, cinematographer Polly Morgan does an exceptional job capturing the beauty of the marsh.  At times, the landscape felt like another character in the story.  I wish it had been.

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