The tradition of Southern Gothic storytelling, which often features — among other elements — eccentric characters living in poverty, goes back to the Civil War era. Many artists have put their own spin on the genre since then, including author Delia Owens, whose massive bestselling novel Where the Crawdads Sing has now been made into a highly anticipated film.
The story centers on Kya Clark (Daisy Edgar-Jones), a young woman who has been living in the swamps of North Carolina on her own for many years after her abusive father drove the rest of her family away. The film jumps back and forth in time, from her tormented childhood to her mostly-blissful relationship with Tate (Taylor John Smith) to the death of Chase Andrews (Harris Dickinson), whom Kya is accused of killing due to her eccentricity and little else.
Directed by Olivia Newman and written by Lucy Alibar, the film benefits from an immediate sense of place. Much of it takes place in and around the swamp in which Kya lives, and the unique vegetation, the maze-like waterways, and the creaky architecture all combine to give a vibe that could never be fully re-created on a soundstage. Kya also encounters shop owners Jumpin’ (Sterling Macer Jr.) and Mabel (Michael Hyatt) on a regular basis, adding not only someone who cares for Kya, but also characters that enhance the film’s atmosphere.
The story combines elements that might seem antithetical, but the filmmakers do such an effective job setting each one of them up that they seem natural next to each other. The film’s central mystery of whether or not Kya killed Chase is supported by the heartbreaking aspect of her life in general, which gives her a toughness others might not have. Kya and Tate’s romance is swoon-worthy, thanks in part to the film establishing their friendship as kids and because the two older actors have a chemistry together that’s rare.
The filmmakers layer on other small details that keep the story humming. Kya is enamored of the nature that is all around her, especially feathers shed by birds, and this love influences the film’s storylines in unexpected ways. The film, set in the 1950s and ‘60s, also points out the insidious racism and other prejudices held by some in the Southern community without it distracting from the larger story at hand.
An underrated part of the film is its casting. Only two of the main cast — Edgar-Jones and David Straithairn, who plays Kya’s lawyer — are relatively well-known, which allows the others to inhabit their characters without any pre-conceived notions. Edgar-Jones is fantastic as Kya, exuding an innocence that the character needs, but also able to transform at a moment’s notice. Smith, Hyatt, and Macer play characters that might seem idealized, but they each put on performances that deepen their roles significantly.
As an adaptation of a hugely popular book, it’ll be tough for Where the Crawdads Sing to please everybody. But from the perspective of someone who has not read the book, the story is extremely well told, containing multitudes thanks to its combination of genres and impressive characterization.
Where the Crawdads Sing opened in theaters on July 15.