Reese Witherspoon’s latest book club adaptation hits the big screen, featuring Daisy Edgar-Jones… and not much else. The novel by Delia Owens, released in 2018, concerns a young woman who raised herself in the marshes of North Carolina. Like The Help or The Blind Side, it’s the kind of tale that prioritizes entertaining fans of the book without ever challenging their preconceived notions. When the portrayal of growing up poor is akin to a high school rendition of Oliver Twist, one wonders why actual musical numbers weren’t used to complete the wholly artificial feel. The Taylor Swift song, “Carolina,” which plays over the end credits, is easily the best part of the entire run time.
Before that haunting track is 125 minutes of thoroughly recycled, flavorless hokum, evoking the eye-roll-inducing made-for-TV Lifetime content from the 2000s. Hero characters speak with the earnestness of a Hallmark card. Villains all but announce their mustache-twirling intention with judgmental eyes. Locations, both indoors and outdoors, are overly lit to wipe away any kind of authenticity. The central mystery involving a dead man and no evidence could barely sustain an episode of Law & Order.
The greatest offense is how it treats its poor and casts aside residents of the fictional town of Barkley Cove, NC. Whether it’s the main character Kya Clark (Daisy Edgar-Jones), her family, or the local, and apparently, only people of color, a married couple that run a general store, both the script by Lucy Alibar and the direction by Olivia Newman (CBS’s F.B.I.) offer nothing but well-meaning but shallow observations on Southern living. No one seeing this adaptation expects a genuine look at socio-economic disparity like Sean Baker’s The Florida Project, but still, this just comes off as awkward.
Although the book was a big hit with Witherspoon’s book club, there was always a concern about how her production company, Hello Sunshine, would handle such an endeavor (To stay nothing of the real-life controversy surrounding the author). Previous attempts at even her working-class characters tended to be broad, like Hot Pursuit. By contrast, the first season of HBO’s Big Little Lies offered a solid, well-crafted mystery set against the backdrop of insanely wealthy people, save for Shailene Woodley’s working-class character, Jane. Thus it came as no surprise that Jane was the most underwritten character.
Witherspoon and her production company can easily deliver beautifully curated million-dollar mansions off the west coast. But for anyone who’s lower class or below the poverty line, not so much. Only Witherspoon’s Oscar-nominated turn in Jean-Marc Vallée’s Wild came close to showcasing the reality of a life without basic necessities most take for granted. Cut to 2022, and by design, Crawdads offers rustic as sponsored by Pottery Barn. Given Witherspoon’s fanbase, this is understandable, but the potential leaves the feeling that the story deserved more.
Early on, we see Kya as a young girl (Jojo Regina) whose abusive father (Garret Dillahunt) scared away the rest of her family. First, her mother left after suffering from domestic violence. Then her siblings too. Eventually, Kya is alone in the marshes. She must raise herself. Yet, beyond a scene where young Kya attempts to barter mussels she gathered in exchange for items at the general store, nothing is memorable. As the kind store owners (Michael Hyatt and Sterling Macer Jr.) sized up Kya, I wondered where this little girl acquired such clean, store-bought overalls. She has no shoes, but her feet don’t really look like they’ve been traipsing through mud and grass. Her hair is “tussled” in an awkward performative way.
The casting of Dillahunt as the father was also a red flag. First seen from behind, he knocks Kya into the lake. Yet the moment Dillahunt’s kind eyes showed up onscreen, I wondered if the guy who played the nicest Southerner ever on Fear the Walking Dead could play an abusive man who drives his family away. The answer is a resounding no. When his character abandons his daughter early on, I assumed he eventually ran into June in the Fear universe and snapped back to being a good man again. Is this a casting issue? Maybe or maybe Dillahunt had no real material to fashion a monster of a human being out of (He did play an effective Terminator on The Sara Connor Chronicles back in the day, after all). Either way, his presence zaps any terror from these early moments of the film.
The bulk of the film is about how Kya, aka the “Marsh Girl,” kept herself away from the townsfolk until she met nice guy Tate (Taylor John Smith) and, later on, dead man-to-be Chase Andrews (Harris Dickinson), a man who’s presence screams sexual predator from frame one. The murder plot boils down to adult Kya recounting her past experiences to her lawyer Tom (David Strathairn) from her jail cell. The setting is the late 60s, and the jail bars are as fake as the ones that adorned 40’s era Shawshank. Like Frank Darabont’s film, if the composition can favor pleasant and pretty over harsh and real, pretty wins every time.
As played by Jones, Kya’s a loner who just wants to be left alone, yet her skill set to be resourceful in the face of dangers is, well, she can hide behind a tree real good. Jones (Under the Banner of Heaven) is an actor of suitable range limited to too many bland choices for an individual with such a unique background. This is a person who is rural poor. That means, potentially, no running water, no heat, and no real means of income. Did I mention she was illiterate until her late teens? And yet, the cinematography by Polly Morgan (Lucy in the Sky) refuses to light any moments of discomfort in an unflattering way.
For many, Kya will be a gateway character to view the admittedly pretty settings of the swampy green backgrounds and the carefully idealized shack she lives in. Jones is often tasked with delivering cringe lines of dialogue that I doubt even veteran actors could pull off. The art department clearly put in the work. How exactly the character of Kya and such a world are melded together, however, leaves a lot to be desired in terms of any kind of authenticity.
And yet, Where The Crawdads Sing will be good enough for some, I suppose. As a travelogue flick to stream once it leaves theaters, it’ll be pleasing as escapist fare. The book has sold over 12 million copies. The question is whether Owen’s novel actually captured something human amid a threadbare plot and thin characterization. Perhaps the real flavor of the story got lost in the swamp on its way to the big screen. Either way, we Swifties were treated to a new track, so that’s a win, right?