“Where the Crawdads Sing” (2022)
Duration: 125 Minutes
Directed by Olivia Newman
“Where the Crawdads Sing,” directed by Olivia Newman, is a lyrical coming-of-age narrative about survival and isolation. The film is based on the internationally cherished novel of the same name, written by Delia Owens.
The story is set in the tucked away waterfront town of Barkley Cove, North Carolina. Kya, (Daisy Edgar Jones), begins the story as a young girl unaware of the changes that are about to impact her life. She lives with her three older siblings, mother and father, who is an angry alcoholic. They live in a tumble-down house, scraping their livelihoods from the water’s edge.
Kya is on trial for the murder of a local boy, Chase Andrews (Harris Dickinson), whose body was found at the edge of the marsh beneath the watchtower. The film opens with an aerial shot of the marsh from the sea grass, to the watercolor sky, to a computer-generated image of an alligator moving slowly hunting the marsh. The opening shot is a majestic blue heron, a symbol of luck and an alligator, a hunter offering the symbol of the hunted both represent early emotion in the film. Next, images of young Kya fill the screen as viewers are introduced to her family life.
Within the first moments of the movie, the distance and violence in her family causes those relationships to disintegrate and disappear into the marsh decaying a few feet from Kya’s front door. Her mom is the first to leave, then her two sisters, then her older brother Jodie and she is left alone with her father — who rarely attends to the bare minimum needs of his child. One day driving her father’s boat back from town, Kya gets lost in the marsh and meets Tate,(Taylor John Smith) who helps lead her home.
Jones’ portrayal of Kya leaves the audience crawling for more. We miss the sense of desperation and the connection she shares with the marsh from that book that we don’t see in the movie. We only know about it in the film because it is written into the script itself.
Many of the lines in this script draw the audience out of the moment by bringing us back to the language of the novel itself and making us wish we were holding it in our hands. While the life of the book is in Owens’ lyrical language and character development, the life of the film is in the characters and the story itself, solely because so many people know this story already. The screenplay, written by Lucy Alibar, strives to match the novels’ language but fails to meet the rugged, yet beautiful way Owens describes the natural world.
As a cinematic exposition of the book, the film fails to show themes such as the silence of isolation. Voiceovers are used throughout the film to push Kya into her own story which is what a screenplay should be able to do on its own. The visual aspect of the film does most, if not all, of the work in adapting Kya’s story.
The cinematography is captivating. Every shot brings a visual adaptation of Kya’s life on the marsh. Muted tones, rain storms and lights are used to bring this environment to life in all its twisted and heart breaking reality. The camera cuts between scenes in the courtroom, in town, by the marsh and at Kya’s home.
Kya is a poet of the natural world. She spends most of her time finding feathers of marsh birds and receiving specimens from Tate. Tate teaches her how to read, which also expands her knowledge of the marsh she grew up with. Before he leaves for school, Tate gives her a list of publishers to contact so she can make a book of her drawings, poetry and information about the marsh and its residents.
Chase and Kya start a relationship while Tate’s away at school. Her relationship with Chase mirrors her relationship with her father: cold, forced and cracked. She later discovers that he was engaged for the entire time they were together. He returns to her home enraged by the situation, attacks Kya and gets her to the ground. This is the first time we see Kya fight for herself. She spends the majority of the film protecting the marsh which has always protected her and keeping her distance from the town.
Kya’s lawyer, Tom Milton (David Strathairn), works with her to help gain the respect of the Barkley Cove community, which has consistently treated her like an outsider. Her brother, Jodie,(Logan Macrae), who left when she was young, returns for her trial. Milton connects with Kya, learns her story and tells the truth of her experiences to the courtroom.
As a story, this film is a beautiful, honest and captivating exploration of survival, love and Kya’s life on the marsh. As a film, it lacks the emotion and desperation of Kya’s character. Regardless, this film is a must-see if your heart already loves this story as Owens tells it in the book.