Director: Olivia Newman (USA). Year of Release: 2022
Barkley Cove, North Carolina, 1969. A couple of kids cycling through the swamp discover a corpse. The police arrive and find that it once belonged to star quarterback Chase Anderson. There are no foot tracks, either of Chase or of anyone who was with him – which makes the cops suspicious. The body is at the foot of a high fire tower, from which Chase apparently fell, though it is unclear whether this was murder, suicide or just an accident.
The police take a particular interest in Kya, locally known as the Marsh Girl. Kya grew up on the edge of town, never fully integrating, or being allowed to integrate. There are rumours that she and Chase were having a thing. Later, a witness reports hearing her threatening to kill him. But, most importantly, Kya is an outsider, unlike the upstanding townsfolk, who always felt there was something wrong with her. This is a problem for Kya, as the jury is made up of these townsfolk.
Flashbacks take us through Kya’s upbringing – the daughter of a father who was violent when drunk, and could not afford to buy his kids shoes. The one day when she did attempt to go to school, her classmates refused to sit next to her and ridiculed her as a “swamp rat”. Her relatives left one by one, until Kya was left fending for herself. Still a child, she gathered mussels and sold them to the local store in exchange for food and petrol for her small boat.
Kya is noticed by one of the local lads, Tate, who leaves her presents of feathers and spark plugs. He also writes a letter. This is not much use as Kya is illiterate, although she’s an expert drawer. Tate teaches her to read and encourages her to publish her illustrations. For the first time in her life, Kya grows some self-confidence. Tate goes off to college, promising he’ll be back next month to watch the Fourth of July fireworks with her on the beach. July 4th comes, but Tate doesn’t.
Later Chase, the soon to be ex-quarterback. takes an interest (it seems that Kya has a thing for men with monosyllabic names). Things go swimmingly, and unlike Tate, who won’t sleep with Kya as it will ruin things, Chase takes her away on a “business trip”. He’s obviously from a well off family and has just been promoted to manager. They consummate their relationship very quickly, though Kya doesn’t look fulfilled. Soon she meets a woman in town who introduces herself as Chase’s fiancée.
Every so often, something happens which looks like it might get interesting. Just as often, this opportunity just gets wasted. A friendly if slightly infantilized Black couple work in the corner shop, but suffer little harassment – this is the 1950s and 1960s below the Mason-Dixon line remember. Kya’s brother returns from the army, presumably from Nam – but no-one even mentions his uniform. At one stage, property developers threaten to take Kya’s home away … until they don’t.
Each time it looks like an important social issue is about to be addressed, we shy away. For a film that’s supposed to champion the outsider, Where the Crawdads Sing takes very few risks. Even the characters all look the same. Both love interests and Kya’s brother are all tall and barrel chested. It’s hard to tell which is which except one is blond, one black haired and the brother wears a uniform. Heaven forfend, though, that Kya might fall for a scrawny runt.
Eileen Jones calls Where the Crawdad sings “one of those wearying pop-feminist movies.” Yes it’s on the right side. Yes it is even prepared to address an issue like attempted rape, from which more cautious films might hide. But even here, it leaves no cliché unturned. And ultimately, all the female characters are treated as victims who must suffer on their own. When first Kya’s mother, then her siblings escape her violent father one by one, not one of them thinks to take Kya with them.
There is a twist in the end, but it was already fairly obvious that we would have one of two possible, and equally predictable, endings. And by then, the film has spent so much time highlighting the way in which the town has mistreated and excluded Kya that we’ve pretty much stopped caring Whodiddit. For a film which lasts over 2 hours, there is neither enough going on, nor interesting character or plot development to warrant the length.
Having said all this, I’m not entirely sure that the film deserves the kicking it has got from some critics. It’s not that bad. It’s just not that anything. Don’t misunderstand me if I say that this is a story best read with a poolside drink. I like that sort of story in the right context. It’s just that there are other artistic media more suited to depicting such unchallenging blandness.
The film is competently acted, and Daisy Edgar-Jones (aka her off Normal People) as Kya and David Straithairn as Atticus Finch – sorry, as Kya’s lawyer – are admirable, but you’re only as good as your script. And maybe Edgar-Jones is a little too pretty and stylish to be the young woman who is ostracised by everyone. Which leaves us just with the photography of beautiful countryside (filmed, by the way, in Louisiana not North Carolina), and I’m not sure that that is really enough.