It couldn’t be more fitting that Where The Crawdads Sing features a song contribution from Taylor Swift, since the whole damn thing is basically the embodiment of her catalog. That shouldn’t be an insult, but Swift’s power stems from the fact that her entire output is a reflection of her, or rather, who she was at the time she was writing.
But anyone with a cursory knowledge of the source material is well aware that the novel isn’t just a character study of its protagonist Kya (Daisy Edgar-Jones), it’s a contemplation of the very specific slice of southern nature she calls home, which she eventually comes to see as a surrogate mother. Having been abandoned by her own, with the rest of her family quickly following, Kya gets just enough, both from the land and those willing to intervene, so she can survive, then thrive, on her own terms.
How this movie tries to shove Kya into a box that turns her story into a kind of cottagecore fairy tale is the source from which all its sins spring. It’s the most common mistake creators make when they’re telling women’s stories – an inability to see magic unless it’s photogenic, and beauty only when it suits their tastes. And women are no less guilty of this, which goes a long way toward explaining why a movie written and directed by those with credentials that include First Match and Beasts of the Southern Wild could go so horribly awry.
It’s also why a rundown shack with an abusive patriarch becomes an Instagram-worthy home, overalls are artfully covered with cute, perfectly square patches, a would-be rapist becomes a tortured rich boy, and a mother passes peacefully away from cancer rather than being driven to madness by years of abuse and refusing medication for her leukemia in a slow motion suicide. A tale of a respectable middle-class blonde this is not.
But I Digress…
Since Where the Crawdads Sing can’t even put Kya in torn or even stained clothes, it is staggeringly unable to comprehend the psychological consequences of being a social outcast, and how everyday indignities can cut far worse than the jeering crowds surrounding her after she’s accused of murdering the local hunk she was involved with in 1969 North Carolina. It’s over the top because it is, especially in a town where adults casually dismiss a child as trash in front of the child in question. Anonymous masses cursing you is a blessing in comparison.
In trying to squeeze Kya into a box of respectability, the movie overlooks the fact that she is not an entirely separate animal from Swift, who may as well be Crawdads’s true inspiration. Both have roots in foremothers who manage to find power despite a society that encourages silent acquiescence from half the population.
Swift herself is a modern representation of a long tradition of women, from Mary Pickford to Julia Roberts, who market themselves as America’s sweethearts, yet consistently prove themselves to be shrewdly astute businesswomen. Kya is their inverse, the impoverished outsider girl dismissed as a lost cause who likewise proved to have a powerful mind, and whose studied observations of the land she resides in carries her to a place of independence and even financial success.
Stripped of Meaning
It didn’t have to be this awkward, but perhaps it was always going to end up here. Sure, the adaptation literally deprives us of all of the book’s poetry and grace, but author Delia Owens is no stranger to controversy, or even accusations of murder, given her own controversial work in Africa. Much like the movie adaptation of The Help, Where the Crawdads Sing takes the problematic aspects of the source and exacerbates them, but if it likewise forces us to reckon with the author it comes from, some good may yet come out of it.
If the movie does belong to anyone, it’s to Jojo Regina, who plays the young Kya. She’s the kind of child actress with eyes that seem to pierce the screen itself, hopefully to return in a role that will suit her already evident talent. The adult Kya, Edgar-Jones, never even has the chance to exhibit that kind of power, with the movie itself seeming to see her as a kind of witch with a born talent for connecting to animals and nature. But how is she supposed to have any kind of mysteriousness or presence when the movie won’t allow her any kind of secrets?
All we’re left with then, is the biggest cliche of all: a product that attempts to please everyone and will end up satisfying no one.
Rating: 2/10 SPECS
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Featured Image Courtesy of Sony Pictures/Michael K Short.
Andrea Thompson is a writer, editor, and film critic who is also the founder and director of the Film Girl Film Festival.
She is a member of the Chicago Indie Critics and runs her own site, A Reel Of One's Own, and has written for RogerEbert.com, The Spool, The Mary Sue, Inverse, and The Chicago Reader. She has no intention of becoming any less obsessed with cinema, comics, or nerdom in general.