Tuesday, August 9, 2022

Where the Crawdads Sing is a lustrous buffet of cinematic faux-feminism

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Directed by Olivia Newman. Cast: Daisy Edgar-Jones, Taylor John Smith, Harris Dickinson, Michael Hyatt, Sterling Macer, Jr, David Strathairn. 15, 126 minutes.

Welcome to Hollywood — where even an active murder investigation isn’t enough to stop the adaptation of a bestseller into a glossy, Instagram-prepared buffet of cinematic faux-feminism. Where the crayfish sing, which has sold more than 12 million copies since its release in 2018, is the definition of a literary sensation. It was introduced as part of Reese Witherspoon’s book club. The actor is now serving as the film’s executive producer.

Normally you would welcome this kind of savvy entrepreneurship. But Delia Owens who wrote Where the crayfish sing, is currently wanted by Zambian authorities over footage obtained by ABC News which appears to show the shooting and killing of an unidentified poacher by unknown persons at a game reserve overseen by Owens and her husband Mark. And anyone who argues that these are just irrelevant biography pieces — unproven allegations that would fit more comfortably in the margins of a gossip magazine — is confronted with the strange and uncomfortable reality that afflicts so many Where the crayfish sing reads as a moral defense for the laws of nature replacing those made by man.

“A swamp knows all about death and doesn’t necessarily define it as a tragedy, much less a sin,” reads the book’s prologue, along with the opening lines of Olivia Newman’s film. Its protagonist, Kya (Daisy Edgar-Jones), is unflinchingly presented as someone whose connection to her swampland home in South Carolina is a talisman of unblemished authenticity. When the body of a local, Chase Andrews (Harris Dickinson), is discovered in the wilderness, everyone assumes that Kya, the reclusive “Marsh Girl” who has been systematically abandoned by her entire family, must be responsible. She is arrested and immediately thrown in jail.

Kya and Chase had a kind of dalliance, a distraction from the travails of their fairytale romance with childhood sweetheart Tate (Taylor John Smith, who is as friendly as the role demands). And it’s in this Nicholas Sparks-esque, passionate but oh-so-chaste love story that Newman and screenwriter Lucy Alibar seem most invested in. I’m not surprised at all. Owens has a certain dizzying twist — “being completely alone was a feeling so big it reverberated” is particularly lovely — and scenes of Kya and Tate making out in a tornado of leaves or like a flock of seabirds tears its way up to heaven are seriously staged by Newman.

Does the fact that the film largely ignores the book’s discourse on nature and virtue sever it from any ties to Owens’ real-life controversies? It certainly doesn’t improve on an artistic level what is already included on the site. Newman’s vision of rural South Carolina is scrubbed so clean it might as well be called #swampcore—the Spanish moss looks bright and pristine, the flower petals arranged on the water almost deliberately. Owens, at least, presented the wilderness as wild. Kya, too, is a young woman who gets treated wildly by those around her while at the same time dressing and grooming herself like a tradwife on Instagram. There’s a scene where she goes into town and everyone is shocked – it’s the first time they’ve seen her with makeup on and her hair combed. She looks the same as in every other scene in the film.

Where the crayfish sing, in short, treats rural poverty as if it were a desirable aesthetic, the ultimate way to reconnect with nature. This isn’t just a problem for the obvious reasons. We hear David Strathairn’s friendly attorney argue in court that Kya never had “the weakness of character” to murder Chase. It feels like we’re being asked to empathize with her less because she’s a social outcast and more because she’s a skinny, pretty, white girl. Edgar-Jones is not stingy with doe-eyed naivety – post-normal people and Fresh, there’s a real danger she’ll be put in these kinds of waif roles. Her marginalization isn’t addressed as much as not being invited to sit at the cool kids’ lunch table.

It feels particularly absurd how the film’s only black characters are treated – a local couple, Jumpin (Sterling Macer Jr.) and Mabel (Michael Hyatt), who own a shop and care for the abandoned Kya with holy generosity. Race is irrelevant in a film set in South Carolina in the 1960s. The film adamantly insists that Kya is the only person in her area code who has ever been stalked in any way.

Again, if anyone had paid attention to Owens’ previous conservation activities, they might have made a connection between the patronizing stereotyping of black characters in her book and earlier allegations of racist attitudes towards the people of Zambia (an acquaintance, in a New Yorker Article published in 2010 characterized her views as “Beautiful continent. Pity about the Africans”). But, hey, who has time to check these things when there’s so much money to be made?

Where the Crawdads Sing hits theaters July 22nd

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