Treacle and cornpone to its very core, an exercise in nostalgic tedium. Reese Witherspoon loved the book, a story of murder and mystery and coming of age in the swamps of a North Carolina small town. So the movie got made, in exactly the vein and manner of this vacuous and generic interview with the producer.
Daisy Edgar-Jones (Normal People, Under the Banner of Heaven) is Kaya, one of a kabillion kids living in the marsh with her abusive father and helpless mother. Soon, the mother ups and leaves (Kaya yells “Mommy, Mommy” but as is the style in this type of Southern gothic turdpile, Mom sleepwalks down the misty driveway, never looking back). Kaya’s siblings soon follow (one of whom basically tells 9 year old Kaya “stay low” to survive just before he abandons her). Then her father splits, and Kaya is consigned to a life alone as the spooky swamp girl. Mind you, for the rest of her life (and when we leave her, she is in her mid-twenties), not one of her siblings circles back to see if, maybe, their little sister is ok. Her serviceman brother does a perfunctory drop-in later, when she is on trial for murder, meaning he was an adult for 12 or so years and couldn’t be bothered.
The film’s version of 1960s rural poverty is to the real McCoy what the Disney ride is to actual pirates in the Caribbean. You soon suspect the swamp girl is derided by the locals not for her foreign and mysterious ways, or any class condescension, but rather, for her stunning cheekbones, luminous skin, and pearly white teeth.
The entire feel is inauthentic, as if brought to you by Loew’s or Home Depot. The swamp feels more like a fern bar, the town like Smallville, the characters every single archetype you’ve seen before.
We even get Kaya’s ponderous voiceover telling us things we can plainly see, half Marlin Perkins, half Judy Blume.
Kaya grows up and is caught in a tepid love triangle between two disinteresting homogenous actors with the mien of reality tv star brothers who macrame.
Could this be a double murder? Oh to dream!
Sadly, no. Kaya goes on trial for the murder of only Siegfried, not Roy, and perhaps the most boring legal drama in filmic history ensues. The case is so weak, you expect the actor playing the prosecutor to turn to the camera and shrug in apology. Kaya’s defense attorney (David Strathairn) shreds all witnesses with easy politeness, stopping just short of patting them on the head at the conclusion of his cross examination.
With the verdict a foregone conclusion, the reveal (she did/did not do it!) is anticlimactic in the extreme, made worse by the filmmakers’ decision to withhold “how” she did or did not do it.
It’s all clearly too much for director Olivia Newman, who had some TV episodes on her resume’, to handle. She can’t settle in on any one aspect of the story (the disconnect between town and swamp, the thriller, the abandonment and solitude, the love stories) with any depth so we get a steamed, soggy pu pu platter of platitudinous porridge. The fact that the dull screenplay was written by Beasts of the Southern Wild co-writer Lucy Alibar is both confounding and depressing.
In the end, Kaya becomes a big star. Music swells. Crawdads sing. Cursing of Reese Witherspoon’s reading habits follows.