Where the Crawdads Sing is a popular novel published in 2018. So it was only a matter of time before someone would buy up the rights and get a movie made before it disappears from the New York Times bestseller lists and the drunken wives book club meetings. I’ve not read the book, but after seeing the movie, I realized I don’t need to, because I have in fact read the book before through countless other Southern Gothic works of fiction including To Kill a Mockingbird, Fried Green Tomatoes, As I Lay Dying and Child of God to name a few.
Delia Owens, who wrote the novel, grew up in southern Georgia and went to the University of Georgia. I have lived in southern Georgia. I know they say writers should write what they know, but there’s something boring and tired about this movie. Maybe the book was great but the adaptation of the movie written by Lucy Alibar, who also wrote Beasts of the Southern Wild, which this movie is a white woman version of, and directed by Oliva Newman, who’s only had one previous feature movie, isn’t as great.
There’s so many of the same tired tropes and cliches that have been in other works:
- There’s the drunken, abusive father, “Pa” Jackson Clark (Garret Dillahunt) who does a lot screaming, yelling and fighting before he disappears. Dillahunt is becoming a pro in this type of role. Usually Walton Goggins would be in this role but he’s getting better offers. And Ray McKinnon is getting too old.
- There’s the token black people who function also as the Magical Negroes. Here, they are a married couple, James “Jumpin'”Madison (Sterling Macer Jr.) and Mabel Madison (Michael Hyatt). They own a convenience store who more or less look after the protagonist Catherine “Kya” Clark (played by Daisy Edgar-Jones as an adult and Jojo Regina as a child.)
- There’s the good-hearted southern gentleman Atticus Finchian lawyer, Tom Miton (David Strathairn). He believes in what’s doing right regardless of his reputation. He’s the one who represents Kya when she is accused of murdering the local student athlete stud, Chase Andrews (Harris Dickinson), who we know is a dick when he’s not around his parents and school officials.
- There’s the oddity that Kya is the “Pretty Ugly Outcast” in this movie. She’s a relative of the “Pretty Ugly Girl” from teen movies who wears denim overalls and puts her hair in a ponytail. She’s called the “Marsh Girl” because her home is a marsh land near the North Carolina coast. Even though she lives in jerkwater backcountry, she seems to dress nicely, practice good hygiene and have the best groomed hair. Yes, there are the stereotypical poverty porn early scenes where she is dirty and not wearing any shoes but still has nice hair. They never get the hair right. Most neglected children have matted hair, but I guess Newman felt that was too much.
- And then there’s the handsome young blue-collar boy, Tate Walker (Taylor John Smith), who comes from a blue-collar working class family but looks like an Abercrombie & Fitch model. Tate is Kya’s first boyfriend who teaches were to read and write and encourages her to draw pictures of wildlife and sea shells because he realizes that she’s no different than any other teenage girls. Of course, Tate goes off to college and seems to forget about Kya so she finds herself in a relationship with the more direct and forward Chase.
- Even the names of the people in this movie seem to be like antebellum southern belle fanfiction. Where’s the Johns, Davids, Kevins, Peters, etc? Since this is a movie set in the post-WWII era all the way to through the Civil Rights era which isn’t even mention, the young men have to be named Tate and Chase. Today, they would be called Dillon and Colton. Even the name Kya is supposed to be exotic. Maybe it was in the 1950s and 1960s but we’re living in an era in which people are called Nevaeh (Heaven spelled backwards and Brie-Anne-Leigh. No kidding, I would one kid call Brockly which sounded like “broccoli.”)
Yeah, so anyway, Chase is found lying dead at the bottom of a fire tower. A missing metal grate is found at the top and some blood on the railing suggets he was pushed through to his death. Since they don’t really have anyway to tell if it was an accident or homicide, they just decide to go arrest Kya because the rumors pass around town that she did it. And Milton decides to represent her in trial.
The trial part of the movie is split up with long flashbacks that you might forget there’s even a trial going on. We find out that Kya was dating Chase after Tate ghosted her. One day, he tried to sexually assault her after he discovered she was engaged and was just playing around with her. And since it was the late 1960s, when she tried to defend herself, a fisherman nearby just assumed she was wacko because she’s the “Marsh Girl.”
Yes, the whole movie drives home the point several thousand times that just because she’s the “Marsh Girl,” it doesn’t mean she’s a freak. What’s funny is that at no time in this movie, does she ever seem like a true small-town freak. I mean, surely there was someone in 1968 North Carolina who wore flannel or had a scruffy beard. Tate’s father is a fisherman and even he is critical of Kya. Everyone in this movie always looks so clean and well-groomed like they’re part of some conservative Christian wet dream of American life.
It reminds me of a Nicholas Sparks movie where people from the south are always so nicely dressed and clean-shaven. Even Ryan Gosling’s beard in The Notebook looked well groomed. And mix the Sparks southern rom-com with a John Grisham’s southern legal thrillers and you have the basic outline of this movie. After a while you really don’t care what happened to Chase because he was such a creep and it ends with a revelation that takes place many years later.
I’ll be blunt. These Southern Gothic movies need to go the way of the Civil Rights movies. I understand Owens grew up in BFE Georgia and I can imagine how backward it was during that time. But part of me wonders why writers and filmmakers still think these movies are what people want to see. When news broke about Will Smith’s movie Whipped Peter, I was reading a lot of comments about how black people are growing tired of the Civil Rights movies as well as the movies of themselves as enslaved people. And I don’t blame them. It’s been played out the point of nauseam. Robert Townsend mocked it in Hollywood Shuffle and that was 35 freaking years ago.
I lived in Georgia for 24 years almost. What’s wrong with doing a movie set in the current south? One of the best things about the film and TV industry being in Georgia is that it’s encouraging filmmakers to change how movies filmed in the south look. The backlash a couple years ago over the Hillbilly Elegy movie shows that people are tired of seeing movies set in the South, Appalachia, the Ozarks or the Bayou continuing to uphold stereotypes that modern people are trying to break away from.
Produced on a budget of $24 million, Crawdads has made $135 million at the box office, so it’s probably not going to change overnight. That being said, Edgar-Jones does her best with the material. At only 24, hopefully, she will get some better roles in the future. At a painfully long two hours, she’s the only thing keeping this movie going.
What do you think? Please comment.