Delia Owens’ 2018 novel Where the Crawdads Sing was (and continues to be) a blockbuster of a book. By the beginning of 2022, it had sold 12 million copies, making it one of the best-selling books of all time. Did the story of an outcast called the “Marsh Girl” tap into the shared feeling of isolation we all endured during the pandemic? Who knows. When I read it, I thought the nature writing was notably lovely, but as a whole it is a pretty typical love story/murder mystery. But don’t listen to me. A woman at my screening had read it twice, and proclaimed this movie adaptation to be a “masterpiece”.
Crawdads follows Kya, a girl from the North Carolina marsh. As a young woman (played by Daisy Edgar-Jones) in the late 1960s, she is accused of killing a local man. It is easy to point fingers at the town’s outcast, as the poor girl, we learn, basically raised herself. One of the few kindly locals (David Strathairn) steps in to represent her, but the courtroom drama quickly gets pushed aside almost as an afterthought as the story takes us way back to show how Kya ended up sitting there, waiting to be judged by her peers who have already judged her her whole life.
Jumping back to when Kya was a kid in a boisterous family that lived in a ramshackle house out in the marsh, we learn that her childhood was not so idyllic. Her father was a raging alcoholic, violent and unpredictable. It is unthinkable to Kya when first her mother, then siblings scurry off, never to be seen again. But finally dad packs up and leaves, too, and young Kya finds herself on her own. The girl quickly becomes self-sufficient, boating into town to sell mussels to the (again) kindly black store owners in town, Mabel and Jumpin’ (Michael Hyatt and Sterling Macer, Jr.), who are the only people watching out for the poor white trash girl. Local kids and adults are cruel to the shoeless, disheveled kid, so she retreats to the marsh.
As she grows up, she does make a friend, however. Local boy Tate (Taylor John Smith) teaches her how to read (and because this is a movie, she is instantly reading science and natural history). Kya is also a naturally talented artist with a keen eye to her surroundings, so Tate encourages her in her drawings of birds and creatures of the marsh. But Tate goes off to college and breaks her heart. So it is somewhat of a surprise that she falls under the lure of another local boy Chase (Harris Dickinson), a cad who anyone can tell is trouble from a mile away. When Tate eventually comes back to town, Chase is found dead, and the townsfolk immediately pin it on that weirdo, the Marsh Girl.
Now, despite some usual problematic parts of the story (that were also in the book, I might add), I didn’t hate Crawdads. Sure, there is a kindly black couple who step up to watch out for the white girl. Sure she is described as “feral” but is still classically gorgeous. Sure, even though the whole point about her being an independent woman is still negated on the fact that her future (or lack of) depends on a man. But hey, these plot points are nothing new.
So what works for Crawdads (more so, admittedly, in the book) is Nature as its own character. The marsh is a gorgeous, fascinating place. The movie frames it as such (the cinematography is quite lovely), and I’m sure fans will want to flock to the region, just like the white geese in the story. And even though the love triangle/murder mystery is right out of a Nicholas Sparks story, I honestly had forgotten how it ended, and was still somewhat surprised. And just like The Notebook, a popular romance that had me rolling my eyes, Where the Crawdads Sing, I admit, still got me at the end. This is a movie that fans will see regardless of any critics’ reviews. From what I can gather, they won’t be disappointed.