"A swamp knows all about death, and doesn't necessarily define it as tragedy, certainly not a sin". These are the opening lines as uttered in voice-over by the protagonist-narrator, Kya, setting up a story which principally is a coming-of-age tale, told in flashback sequences recounting Kya's turbulent childhood years, interspersed with some snippets of courtroom drama that remain overshadowed as the time invested in them is disproportionate to that devoted to the main character's arc. Where the Crawdads Sing is an adaptation of the titular debut novel by Delia Owens, a title that instantly hit the New York Times bestseller lists in its year of publication (2018) and is still considered today as one of the most commercially successful written works of fiction of the last four years. Owen's first attempt at fiction writing, after several non-fiction books revolving around her years in Africa as a wildlife scientist, was an Edgard Award Nominee for Best First Novel by an American Author (2019) while it had also been selected as top pick for September 2018 by Reese Witherspoon's book club. Witherspoon is also an executive producer of the film and it seems that Owens's story left a deep impression on her mind and soul, thus prompting her to translate the written text into the cinematic language with the final result however being dull and feeling uninspired. I ought to mention that I haven't read the novel, so I cannot assess whether or not the film's creators remained loyal to the original source, or if they had to adjust some of the story's facts in order to make the movie more appealing.
The story's setting is the small town of Barklay Cove in South Carolina, and the timeline is set during the decades of 1950s and 1960s. However, the film was actually shot in Huoma, Louisiana, where the local marsh, perhaps the most vital image/concept in the story, bears strong resemblance with that described by Owens in the book. The juxtaposition between the steady rhythms of nature that transcend the concepts of good and evil and the disruptive, filled with malevolence and animosity, ways of the human society and its norms that slam and squash its weaker and most vulnerable members is prevalent throughout the movie and shapes a central theme that if treated with respect and care, it could offer the audience many questions to ponder about regarding burning social issues such as scapegoatism of the weaker, the eternal "nature vs. nurture" question, the power of human will that can overcome even the most extreme of setbacks and many others that while can be discerned by an attentive viewer, the director, Olivia Newman, doesn't thoroughly explore in the course of the movie's runtime. In the end, the audience is left feeling a bit sleepy as the narration lacks any kind of edge that would ground us while it seems to lack proper orientation in terms of the message it wants to convey, mingling several different subject matters that eventually seem to be underdeveloped in a manner that deducts from the overall clarity of the film.
The protagonist is Kya Clarke, a wild child full of grace, to remember Jim Morisson's immortal lyrics, a girl who was raised in the marshland and spent all her childhood around the swamp while having to deal with a dysfunctional family. First her mother and then her vicious, violent father abandon little Kya who is found all alone in the world, having no idea how to proceed in life or how to make ends meet. Kya had never been sent to school and her lack of elementary education further feed the scorn and derision with which the residents of Barklay Cove treat the so-called "Marsh Girl". When a young man, Chase Andrews is found dead near Kya's place of living, the authorities will soon arrest her as the prime suspect for the murder. The only man who is willing to help Kya is her lawyer, Tom Milton, an experienced attorney who makes honest attempts to approach his mysterious client in order to have better chances to effectively defend her in court. Kya insists that she has nothing to do with any crime, thus a trial begins which is shown to the audience in fragments, as a kind of interlude offering respite from the main narrative that is focused on Kya's upbringing starting from her early childhood and ending in the present day, including her bitter relationship with the victim, Chase Andrews. The present and past timelines are clearly separated and the jumping back and forth in time never confuses the audience, certainly a plus for the director.
If the feeling of suspense is supposed to be emanated from the story, then the creative team behind the cameras, both the writer and the director, definitely lost that bet as at no time I felt that I cared about the outcome of the trial. In a way, the movie impels the reader to disregard the courtroom drama aspect and to emphasize on Kya's story as depicted in the lengthy flashback sequences. Kya, despite her reclusiveness and lack of healthy social interaction, is a young woman of many talents as she manages to learn how to read and write with the help of her friend Tate, and finally writes a book that is published, causing bewilderment to the town's gossipers who thought of her as something less than human. However, Kya's permanent curse is her relationship with men as both Tate and Chase finally betray her in the worst way imaginable, shaking her trust and belief in her fellow human beings, especially when a hint of romance is implicit. Sadly, Kya's uniqueness and otherness are not explicitly evident in Daisy-Edgar Jones's performance as the young English actor isn't perhaps experienced enough yet to deliver a truthful representation of a truly difficult character such as Kya's. Her portrayal comes across as spiritless as well as flat and maybe that is not only her fault but the director's too as she is the one responsible to properly guide her cast in order to achieve the maximum of their potential.
The supporting actors do a fine job with David Strathairn as Tom, Taylor John Smith as Tate, and Harris Dickinson in the role of Chase standing out due to their credible portraits of their respective characters. The photography is solid and while we do not exactly feel that we inhabit the swampland in which Kay lives and breathes, there are times that the camera captures the essence of the small-town's natural reality during those past decades. I believe that Where the Crawdads Sing could be a significantly better film in every aspect if the director tried harder to find an equilibrium between the two timelines and the crime element of the story was more consistently scrutinized by the screenwriter, Lucy Alibar. From the various reviews about the movie that I've read around the web before watching it, I conclude that the audience who was familiar with Delia Owens's novel were, more or less, let down by Newman's underwhelming adaptation and, to be honest, I cannot myself understand how the book could have caused that level of hype if this film actually captured the essence of it. I would say that it was a rather dull watch with no curves in the story that would add to the intrigue and a rambling verbosity in the dialogue that ends up repelling the viewer. Perhaps, someday I will take the decision to delve into Owens's text in order to find out exactly what went wrong with this picture.