“Where the Crawdads Sing”: “Blue Lagoon” meets “Murder, She Wrote”

“I don’t know if there’s a dark side to nature,” says the budding conservationist protagonist of “Where the Crawdads Sing.” “Just inventive ways to endure.”

That’s how Kya Clark (Daisy Edgar-Jones) sums up her take on the animal kingdom — and humanity — in this lyrical coming-of-age story (which also doubles as a murder mystery). ). First-time director Olivia Newman, adapting Delia Owens’ 2018 bestseller, paints a lush picture of the Southern swamps, using sweeping brushstrokes that sometimes recall a Nicholas Sparks melodrama. Yet, beneath all the natural beauty there is indeed something dark.

The film begins in 1969, with Louisiana replacing the fictional coastal town of Barkley Cove, North Carolina. The police investigate the death of a young man named Chase Andrews (Harris Dickinson) – the prime suspect being Kya, a recluse who spent much of her young life living alone in the woods. Most of the townspeople call her “Marsh Girl” and know that she had a romantic relationship with Chase. They assume the worst of someone they have long considered a feral child. Luckily for Kya, gentleman lawyer Tom Milton (David Strathairn) comes out of retirement to defend her.

As Kya tells her story to Tom, the “Crawdads” timeline shifts from the murder investigation to flashbacks to Kya’s troubled childhood. When she was little, Kya (Jojo Regina) was her mother, and eventually all of her siblings ran away from home to escape their drunken and abusive father (Garret Dillahunt). The film’s title is taken from the advice of Kya’s older brother, Cody, who, as he leaves the house, tells his 9-year-old sister where to hide when Pa comes for a punching bag.

Over time, even Pa leaves. Still, there are people looking for Kya. People like Jumpin’ and Mabel (Sterling Macer Jr. and Michael Hyatt), who run the local supply store, and, most importantly, people like Tate (Taylor John Smith), who befriends her, teaches her to read and write, and gradually falls in love with her. “I didn’t know words could hold so much,” she told him, before he too abandoned her.

“Marsh is not a swamp,” Kya says at the start of the film. “Marsh is a space of light, where grass grows in water and water flows in the sky.” But as much as “Crawdads” seems to rave about nature, it’s a violent paradise that sometimes suggests a young adult drama directed by Werner Herzog. (Yes, that Werner Herzog.)

London-born Edgar-Jones (“Cold Feet”) convincingly portrays Kya’s haunted shyness, though she doesn’t quite look like someone you or I would avoid: even though she grew up in the woods, her pastoral wardrobe is less of a wild child than, say, Anthropologie’s summer collection. As Kya’s young handsome opposites, Dickinson and Smith seem pretty much interchangeable, but each actor aptly conveys their respective roles: brutal jock in Chase’s case and sensitive scholar for Tate. With Strathairn’s mellow gravity suggesting an old Atticus Finch, much of “Crawdads” feels like a steamy look at an innocent American past. Not to spoil things, but that’s not exactly what’s happening.

Screenwriter Lucy Alibar (“Beasts of the Southern Wild”) adapts the source material with a nod to the magical realism that characterized her Oscar-nominated screenplay for this 2012 drama, co-written with director Benh Zeitlin. But although set in a similar rural setting and, like “Beasts”, revolving around a father and daughter, “Crawdads” is much more conventional, its tone shifting from young love to a crime story in a small town. It’s south-fried “The Blue Lagoon” meets “Murder, She Wrote” — and topped off with a sprinkle of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

But there is a more curious resonance with Owens’ personal life. According to a recent Atlantic article, the author of ‘Crawdads’ is wanted for questioning in Zambia in connection with the 1995 murder of a suspected poacher – whose execution was videotaped and, according to the article, may have been perpetrated by a member of The Owens family. (There is no statute of limitations for murders in Zambia.)

One might wonder if the fictional tale of beleaguered wreckage in a small town of judgment is Owens’ way of approaching something in his own past. If there’s an urge to see Kya as a somewhat Edenic figure, don’t be so quick to judge.

As Taylor Swift sings in “Carolina,” the film’s closing song — which, in its lyrics about “rivers run through my veins,” bridges the gap between pop music and Americana — there’s also a warning. disturbing: “Muddy these webs we weave”.

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