Film & Television

‘Where the Crawdads Sing,’ A Minority Opinion 

For the past eleven years or so, I’ve been writing about movies for Women’s Voices for Change. My stories (this one included) typically come out on Tuesdays. Movies, however, typically come out on Fridays, which means that try as I might to avoid them, I usually catch a glimpse of other critics’ reviews before mine is published.

Here are some of the less than stellar headlines from last week:

“… Eats Itself into Nothingness”

“… A Stupefyingly Bad adaptation of Spoon-fed Melodrama”

“… A Lesson in How Not to Adapt a Bestseller”

“… Turns a Hit Novel into a Swampy Twilight”

“… A Dull, Well-Scrubbed Southern Gothic Mediocrity

And, the most lyrical …

“… A Finger-licking Bucket of Southern-fried Twaddle”

With a low 36% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, Where the Crawdads Sing promised to be a disappointment. However, I loved the book, the film was made almost entirely by women, and —most importantly — it was playing at the small, independent cinema in my town. Plus, my daughter has upbraided me on more than one occasion for writing too often about movies I love (and not often enough about movies I don’t). So, I steeled myself for an afternoon of “nothingness,” “melodrama,” and “mediocrity.”

How pleased I am to report that my experience was quite different. While, apparently, this puts me in a distinct minority, I enjoyed the movie very much. (And, so did my husband, who is a much tougher critic than I.)

Delia Owens’s Where the Crawdads Sing was published in 2017 and has spent a record 168 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. To date, there have been more than 12 million copies sold. It owes some success to Reese Witherspoon, who selected it for her book club and chose to produce the movie version. Academy award-winner Witherspoon has a reputation for purchasing the rights to and producing film and television adaptations of female-centered literature, such as Big Little Lies, Little Fires Everywhere, Wild, and Gone Girl.

Crawdads tells the story of Kya (Daisy Edgar-Jones), the infamous “Marsh Girl” of Barkley Cove. Abandoned by her family, Kya grew up alone in the North Caroline marshland. Despite rumors, she was not raised by wolves and her eyes don’t glow at night. Instead, she is resourceful, a talented artist, and a being very much in sync and at peace with the natural world.

Into this world come two men, Tate (Taylor John Smith) and Chase (Harris Dickinson). The first is brotherly and protective, teaching Kya to read and write, and slowly, respectfully falling in love with her. He wins a coveted college scholarship, but swears he’ll return to her, a promise that’s soon broken. Kya, realizing she’s once again been abandoned, collapses on the beach, her “heart pain” drifting off “like sand and water.”

The second, Barkley Cove’s hometown hero (the best high school quarterback they’d ever known) is deceitful, feigning love but more interested in bragging rights for taming — and bedding — the Marsh Girl. “She’s a wild animal,” he boasts to his buddies. When Kya, having learned he’s engaged to be married, rejects him, his lust turns to violence, a dynamic Kya witnessed between her father and mother before her mother ran away.

When Chase is found dead, the local authorities blame Kya. And, although the accusation is based on the slimmest threads of evidence, the community is quick to condemn her. Only Tom Milton, a retired lawyer (David Straithairn) is willing to take up Kya’s case but can’t defend her without understanding her. The film, which starts with two boys finding Chase’s body at the base of a fire tower, toggles between jail and courtroom scenes and flashbacks.

The cast of Crawdads is truly excellent. Edgar-Jones, who is best known for the 2020 streaming series Normal People, carries much of the movie’s weight and does a tremendous job making Kya sympathetic but not pitiable. She is treated unfairly, certainly, but she refuses to be a victim. Hollywood veteran and Oscar-nominee Straithairn plays Milton as a cross between Mr. Rodgers and Atticus Finch. If I’m ever charged with murder, I want him for my attorney. As Kya’s beaux, Smith is appropriately handsome and earnest, and Dickinson is appropriately handsome and evil. Garrett Dillahunt is surprisingly human as Kya’s abusive father. And, Sterling Macer Jr. and Michael Hyatt are kind and compassionate as Jumpin and Mabel, a Black couple who do what they can for the Marsh Girl. Perhaps the most extraordinary performance of all is Jojo Regina as young Kya. Crawdads is the eleven-year-old’s first feature, and she is absolutely riveting.

Director Olivia Newman (First Match) and screenwriter Lucy Aliber (Beasts of the Southern Wild) stay very close to Owens’s book. Cinematography, which is stunning, is by Polly Morgan (Lucy in the Sky). And, Taylor Swift contributes “Carolina,” a lovely original song that plays over the credits at the movie’s end. 

Where the Crawdads Sing takes place in the 1960s, and in some ways the film could have been made then. The storytelling is straightforward; the sex is never too graphic; there are clear good guys and bad; and there’s an inarguable moral when all is said and done. I would have liked more time with young Kya — surely there was some trial and error as she learned to fend for herself in the wild. I felt the scenes with Jumpin and Mabel were rushed; they are Kya’s only connection to the community and they deserve more time onscreen. The end of the movie includes a rather corny sequence depicting time passing and lives lived. And the novel’s big reveal isn’t as big as it should be. 

That said, all-in-all, I’m glad I didn’t listen to the majority of critics. I found the film to be both moving and memorable. And, if that makes me part of a minority, that’s fine with me.

Where the Crawdads Sing is now playing in theatres.

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  • Roz Warren July 22, 2022 at 1:37 pm


    After all of the negative buzz, I wasn’t going to bother seeing this one. You have made me rethink that.