Sunday, 19 May 2024

‘Where the Crawdads Sing’ a poignant tale of resilience


A literary phenomenon that skyrocketed to the top of bestseller lists with over 12 million copies sold, Delia Owens’ “Where the Crawdads Sing” began its journey to the big screen when Reese Witherspoon picked it for her book club.

Mind you, my tastes run to nonfiction, mostly to history and biographies, and thus the fiction novel “Where the Crawdads Sing” as the origin for the movie of the same title never came across my radar.

Moreover, Delia Owens, with college degrees in zoology and animal behavior, had a successful career as a wildlife scientist who spent years in the African wilderness chronicling observations of wildlife for nonfiction books that she authored.

As a wildlife biologist studying nature in remote areas, Owens was inspired even from her childhood experience living in the woods to create a captivating mystery about an abandoned child who raised herself to adulthood in the dangerous marshlands of North Carolina.

There is an obvious built-in audience for the cinematic adaptation of “Where the Crawdads Sing,” and I will leave it to others to determine how faithful the screenplay by Lucy Alibar is to the source material.

Some may feel the result is overheated Southern melodrama with the contrivances of an underdog story, a murder mystery, a criminal trial and romantic conflicts mixed into the story of an isolated and resilient outsider stuck in a backwater area.

The setting is 1969 and two kids riding bikes in the marshlands outside of Barkley Cove, North Carolina come across the body of a young man who may have fallen to his death from a forsaken fire tower.

Chase Andrews (Harris Dickinson), once the town’s star quarterback and now heir apparent to a successful business, turns out to be the victim of ostensible foul play. The townsfolk are quick to target Kya Clark (Daisy Edgar-Jones) as the culprit.

The young adult Kya is the mythic “Marsh Girl,” an outsider who has lived her entire life in a shack so deep in the marshlands it can only be accessed on foot or by a small motorboat.

As a suspect in the murder of Chase, Kya is fortunate to be taken on as a pro bono case by retired local defense attorney Tom Milton (David Strathairn), who recognizes his swamp-dwelling client has never been treated fairly by the tightknit community.

Little is known and much is assumed about the “Marsh Girl” by almost everybody in Barkley Cove, and for our benefit there are flashbacks as far back as 1953, when young Kya (Jojo Regina) finds her life thrown into dysfunctional turmoil.

Her father (Garret Dillahunt) is a cruel, abusive drunk whose physical violence drives Kya’s mom (Ahna O’Reilly) to leave with one suitcase and never return, and she’s soon followed by all four of Kya’s older siblings.

Life with father is hardly ideal. Kya tries to stay clear of his furious eruptions so as to avoid physical aggression. But fairly soon the father also disappears, abandoning Kya to the fate of raising herself in the marsh.

Amazingly, Kya proves to be precocious for someone so young and uneducated, demonstrating an ability to be self-reliant by gathering mussels to barter with the kindly owners of a bait-and-tackle shop.

The shop owners are Jumpin’ (Sterling Macer Jr.) and Mabel (Michael Hyatt), apparently the only Black people in this rural area, and they turn out to be as close to surrogate parents for Kya as practically no one else pays attention to her.

But then in her teenage years, Kya is befriended by Tate Walker (Taylor John Smith), who we don’t know much about other than he spent a lot of time in the swamps. Over time, Tate teaches Kya how to read and write, and eventually they fall in love.

Much is expected of Tate, and he goes off to college with the promise to return for the 4th of July fireworks. Time passes without any sight of Tate, and then Kya meets Chase, an arrogant rich boy who seems to be an unlikely suitor.

For his part, Chase is the opposite of Tate, and his interest in Kya never really seems sincere, which becomes readily apparent on the occasion that Kya runs into him with his family during a rare trip into town.

The courtroom drama of Kya’s murder trial may be the least compelling aspect of this film insofar as the theatrics are subdued and the evidence presented by the prosecution appears to lack the substance that a smart defense lawyer could not refute in a closing argument.

“Where the Crawdads Sing” tugs at the heartstrings with its rooting interest in the hope that Kya will be acquitted of the murder charge and find a lifetime of happiness with true love.

A very satisfying and mesmerizing performance by Daisy Edgar-Jones, who must overcome so many slights and disrespect from the townspeople, keeps the audience thoroughly engaged, and hopefully fans of the novel will feel the same.

Tim Riley writes film and television reviews for Lake County News.

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