The newly released film adaption of Delia Owen’s best selling debut novel Where The Crawdads Sing offered Austin NextTribers a great summer escape. Eager to get out of the 100-plus degree heat, we took a trip back in time to the marshes of the American South. Many of us had read the bestseller (over 12 million copies sold worldwide) when it was published a few years back and were eager to see if the new film did it justice.
A heavy dose of suspension of disbelief is needed to wrap your head around a 12 year old figuring out how to feed and clothe herself.
Author Owens has an interesting backstory as a zoologist and conservationist. This book is her first published novel, coming out when she was more than 70 years old, which is an Aging Boldly story if ever there was one. Reportedly, it took her over a decade to write. She has also written several bestselling non-fiction books about her life as a wildlife scientist. With a Ph.D. in animal behavior, Owens’ work brought her to Botswana in the 1970s to study the importance of female grouping in social mammals, which eventually influenced her fiction writing.
The novel opens as a young girl sees her family torn apart by violence and is abandoned as her mother, siblings and eventually her father walk out, leaving her to fend for herself in the marshes of coastal North Carolina. A heavy dose of suspension of disbelief is needed to wrap your head around a 12 year old figuring out how to feed and clothe herself, all while evading local meanies. Her barefoot and disheveled self, lured to school by the promise of a hot meal, is met with abuse by children and adults alike, beginning her life as an illiterate and shunned recluse.
The Celebrity Boost
Enter Reese Witherspoon, who loved the book that reminded her of her own Southern childhood (though she certainly didn’t live alone in a shack). She and her production company put together the money and vision to bring the film to life with a woman-led production team.
The production was truly fortunate to snag Polly Morgan as the director of photography. Her vision for the film was inspired by the opening line of the novel, “Marsh is not swamp. Marsh is a space of light where grass grows in water and water flows into the sky.” She uses dreamy sequences and gorgeous lighting to highlight the atmospheric nature of the marsh, capturing the croaks and trills of the many species of critters that captivate Kya as a young girl and into her young adulthood.
Director Olivia Newman worked with producers Witherspoon and Lauren Neudstadter to carefully and lovingly recreate Kya’s shack and the artwork her character creates, which ultimately pivots the plot of the story. Kya studies the flora and fauna of the marsh, and using her absent mother’s art supplies, creates a delightful and beautiful body of work. This is among my favorite parts of the film, where the camera captures the light and air of her humble home and allows the viewer a peek into her private world.
She sketches and paints the shells, marsh plants, and birds that are her only companions, as well as using the feathers and found objects to bring nature into her home. The feathers eventually become a way for the young adult Kya to communicate with a local lad who brings her seeds and supplies and eventually begins to teach her to read. (Side note: The filmmakers used the paintings of real-life watercolorist Alice Smith, who lived in Charleston through the first half of the last century, for Kya’s depictions of the Carolina Lowcountry.)
Scorn and Scandal
Soon after the film came out, a real-life scandal emerged; the author was wanted for questioning in a murder in Zambia that held similarities to the plot-twisting crime in the novel.
The author is wanted for questioning in a murder in Zambia that held similarities to the plot-twisting crime in the novel.
The release of the film unleashed the critics, both amateur and professional alike, who piled on the scorn for a variety of sins–its almost too-attractive cast, predictable love triangle, and hard-to-comprehend small town nastiness toward a local orphan. And come on, how could Marsh Girl’s hair be so lovely and skin so luminous without a trip to the local Piggly Wiggly for a bit of Prell? Not to mention looking so fetching in church hand-me-downs? Personally I could have used a few more doses of aesthetic realism.
The actors pulled off convincing Southern accents, and some-what nuanced characters. I’ll admit I got happily pulled into the film because of the gorgeous camera work, quiet pacing, and lovely atmosphere. Well worth the ticket price and two hours of your time. And if you can, grab a friend to discuss the plot points and twists, hits and misses afterward. Did she? Or didn’t she?