Where the Crawdads Sing (2022) **** – Seen at the Cinema

I enjoyed the film so much I went out (literally) and bought the book (multiplex and bookshop in same shopping mall). And I’ve no idea why this has received such a tepid response from critics. Reminiscent of Prince of Tides (1991), it packs a far greater emotional punch when it gets into its stride with the aftermath of romance gone wrong. And it’s not as sappy as that might suggest, themes far more adult than young adult, covering domestic abuse, attempted rape, vilification and humiliation.

Even though set in the 1960s, the sense that people fear the different is as topical today, it still stands as a portrait of the outsider for whom rejection by society is common. Illiterate Kya (Daisy Edgar-Jones), snubbed by locals, lives alone in the marshes of North Carolina so when her boyfriend is killed she becomes the automatic suspect. The movie then shifts between the the present day courtroom of 1969 and the past. Isolation makes her vulnerable but not to the point where she is scared to fight back, although she acknowledges that “men always need the last word.” She’s also accustomed to literally covering her tracks, returning leaves disturbed by her footsteps to their original position, with concealment a fact of life.

Regardless of the prejudices of the townspeople, the audience is fed enough clues to leave them guessing right up to the very last scene in one of those revelations straight out of Jagged Edge (1985). And sufficient red herrings muddy the pitch while in true modern style vital pieces of information that might easily have determined the outcome of the trial are hidden until late in the day.

But this is not primarily a courtroom drama. It’s a beautifully realized coming-of-age picture, sucking you into a wilderness that in previous depictions of such alternative worlds would have been doused in violence, check Deliverance (1972) or Southern Comfort (1981). Kya isn’t capable of setting traps to lure the unwary, nor of predatory behavior. Instead, she is more open to abuse of her trust. The two men – Tate (Taylor John Smith) and Chase (Harris Dickinson) – who enter her life, with different degrees of entitlement, are liable to either abandon her or wish to control her.

Self-discovery remains core, with Kya’s tale as much about growing up as finding her path as an artist, and as she develops self-confidence is able to monetize her naturalist skills. Her artistry is often on show and through poetic internal monologues we view her soul, sometimes aching but just as often practical, never confusing the beauty of nature with a reality in which “even doves fight” to quote from the first few pages of the book I managed to read before starting this Blog.

Producer Reese Witherspoon performed a nifty trick. She chose the novel for her book club, watched it turn into a bestseller and then produced the film.

Tate and Chase bring out different aspects of her personality, the former teaching her to read and write, the latter determined to ensure she doesn’t lose the freedom so essential to her being. But whether either man can provide the emotional support she requires is open to question.

The twists and turns of the courtroom are well done. Defence attorney Tom Milton (David Strathairn) is surprisingly gentle for a lawyer, doing his best to bat away the more aggressive  prosecutor’s claims. It’s classic stuff, trying to tie Sheriff Jackson (Bill Kelly) up in knots, deflecting prosecution attempts to paint her as an out-of-control feral child. Milton, plus storekeeper Jumpin’ (Sterling Macey Jr.) and his wife Mabel (Michael Hyatt), are the only locals to show any kindness.

It’s rich in atmosphere and the feeling Kya has for nature comes easily to the surface. I found it totally absorbing, helped in equal parts by the court proceedings, and Kya’s difficult navigation of the emotional highway. There’s a nice meet-cute, done with feathers would you believe, and her reactions to both men, restraint followed by passion, caution at war with raw impulse, are entirely believable. If there is any problem in the narrative relating to both suitors, it’s that we only see them through Kya’s eyes, rather than being given true insight into their ambitions, but you can hardly fault a movie taking the point-of-view of the heroine for expecting her to have a clearer picture of what would-be romancers would rather hide.

The early scenes, depicting abuse of the young Kya (JoJo Regina) at the hands of her alcoholic father (Garret Dillahunt) and her disillusion and fear as one by one she is abandoned by mother and brothers are especially powerful, nobody departing without a cut or a bruise, as if carrying a paternal brand.

The whole picture is such an immersive experience, understanding insects and shellfish as Kya’s wealth of knowledge grows, fearing for her involvement with any man, her inexperience inevitably faulting her choice. And yet she grows through bad experience until she gains the self-reliance to see her through.

Daisy Edgar-Jones, best known for the television mini-series Normal People (2020) does wonders with a difficult role, never playing the sympathy card. It’s always a delight to see a veteran like David Strathairn (Nomadland, 2020) get his teeth into a meaty role. And it’s refreshing to see neither of the young men, Taylor John Smith (Blacklight, 2022) and  British actor Harris Dickinson (The King’s Man, 2021) favoring the grandstanding approach, delivering largely subtle performances.

Restrained performances too from Sterling Macer Jr. (Double Down, 2020) and Michael Hyatt (The Little Things, 2021) while Garret Dillahunt (Ambulance, 2022) continues to do admirable work.

Most credit goes to Olivia Newman (First Match, 2018) for creating a fascinating well-paced picture that allows the actors to breathe and refuses to fall into the trap of delivering a bloated adaptation of a bestseller. And in part this is down to calling in for screenplay duty Lucy Alibar, who has form in this area through Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012).

This has all the hallmarks of a classic sleeper.   

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