July 14, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. This is the kind of movie that requires upfront disclosure: have you read the book or not? Since it was number one on New York Times best seller list for 2019 and 2020, and remained on the list for almost three years, it’s a legitimate question and likely the driving force behind Reese Witherspoon producing the film. I have not read the book and came in with only a few preconceived notions, and enough background information to make it more interesting, not less. This is director Olivia Newman’s first film since her debut FIRST MATCH (2018), and Lucy Alibar (BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD, 2012) adapted the screenplay from the enormously popular novel written by Delia Owens.

Kya Clark is the youngest child of Ma (Ahna O’Reilly) and Pa (Garret Dillahunt). We get a quick glimpse at their strained existence in the marshes of Barkley Cove, North Carolina in 1953, including the violent abuse administered by Pa. It doesn’t take long for her parents and siblings to abandon her, leaving young Kya (JoJo Regina) to fend for herself in what most would consider a harsh environment. But Kya becomes one with nature. Though illiterate, she draws and charts local bugs, bird, and water creatures, while scrounging out a meager living thanks to assistance from local black store owners, Jumpin’ (Sterling Macer Jr) and Mabel (Michael Hyatt).

Daisy Edgar-Jones (“Normal People”, FRESH, 2022) plays older Kya, the one townspeople refer to as “Marsh Girl”. Sensitive local boy Tate (Taylor John Smith) shares Kya’s interest in nature and teaches her to read and write … surely having little to do with her being the prettiest marsh girl you’ve ever seen. When Tate heads off to college, adding another to the Kya abandonment roster, she’s pursued by local rich boy Chase (Harris Dickinson). This becomes another in the film’s storylines when Chase turns up dead after a fall from a fire tower. Despite no footprints, no fingerprints, and very little evidence, Kya is charged with murder and faces the death penalty. A local nice guy attorney (David Strathairn) takes the case and shy, withdrawn Kya provides little help in her defense.

So let’s chat about what’s good and not so good. The Kya character is fascinating and certainly worthy of being the centerpiece of a story. There are similarities to other stories about those who were raised outside of society. NELL (1994) and Tarzan come to mind, but despite the marsh environment, Kya never is a wild creature, and only as a child do we see her dirty and unkempt. This is a flaw, as Kya should be more raw and primitive … at least until her mentoring by Tate. It’s a mystery how Kya is as smart and clean and refined as she appears, since it’s mostly just the store owners who provide even a dash of support. The structure of the film is decidedly fluid – bouncing from timeline to timeline and from story to story. This kind of structure requires superb writing, something that just isn’t in the cards. The courtroom drama and murder case against Kya are especially lightweight and sloppy. Most of it makes little sense and bears almost no resemblance to what an actual trial would look like. Instead, it’s slick for dramatic effect.

The cliches are to be expected, and Ms. Edgar-Jones is to be commended to making the most of a role that often requires her to sit with bowed head or gazing at nature. The narration is odd, with an inordinate number of words jumbled up to initially differentiate between a marsh and a swamp. The love story seems pulled directly from a romance novel, and in fact, that’s probably the best description of his, rather than a murder mystery. Chase and Tate are textbook examples of the extremes of men, and Kya’s Pa adds fuel to the argument that most men are experts at letting down women. Kya’s attention to nature and emphasis on survival instinct vs morality are used multiple times to guide us toward the ending, which evidently is supposed to be a twist reveal. Cinematographer Polly Morgan inserts some nice shots of nature, and the music from Oscar winning composer Mychael Danna (LIFE OF PI) is excellent. Taylor Swift’s new song, “Carolina” plays over the closing credits. It’s not likely a film that will win over anyone who wasn’t a fan of the book, but those devoted readers will surely be on board.

It should be noted that a story more interesting that what we see in the movie, is the real-life events of writer Delia Owens and her husband from their twenty plus years in Africa. This includes a murder case with some curious similarities to what she wrote about. If you are interested, track down the 2010 New Yorker article, “The Hunted”, researched and written by Jeffrey Goldberg.

Opens in theaters July 15, 2022


FRESH (2022)

March 3, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. Discotheques and Night Clubs were regularly referred to as ‘meat markets’, and all movie lovers are familiar with the term ‘meet-cute’. It’s rare for meat and meet to merge into a cautionary tale of modern-day dating, but that’s what we get from director Mimi Cave’s first feature film and a script from Lauryn Kahn (IBIZA, 2018). This twisted film should slide easily into the Midnight Movie rotation for those looking for a slicer, rather than a slasher.

Daisy Edgar-Jones (“Normal People”, 2020) stars as Noa, a twenty-something frustrated with the results of digital dating apps. Her experience is a case study on the challenges of meeting someone special, or even someone not psychotic, through a dating app. She swipes right on a cute puppy picture, and almost immediately receives an unwanted ‘private’ shot. When she does agree to have dinner with one guy, he criticizes her fashion, yearns for old-fashioned femininity, makes her pay half, and doesn’t bother to hold the door for her. Noa tells her close friend Mollie (Jojo T Gibbs) that she’s done with dating for a while, and who can blame her?

Not long after that trainwreck date, and when she’s least expecting it, Noa gets her meet-cute in the produce aisle at the grocery store. Steve (Sebastian Stan who plays Bucky Barnes in the Marvel Universe) is a charming, good-looking guy and she agrees to give him her number. Their first date is filled with the usual background Q&A stuff, but it’s clear that Noa and Steve have some chemistry. The reason this works cinematically is that director Cave allows us to view Steve through Noa’s eyes. Just like her, we are diligently searching for red flags, remaining on high alert for signs something is off. But plastic surgeon Steve’s early warning signs only become noticeable much later (too late) after his true self is revealed.

Steve’s true-self-revelation is a doozy, and the opening credits pop up just after the gut-punch, approximately 40 minutes in. While the first act plays a bit like a traditional rom-com with all the associated romantic awkwardness, the stunningly plausible shift jerks us and Noa in a different direction. Additional supporting work is provided by Dayo Okeniyi as an initially helpful bartender whose recognition of horror film tropes prevent him from taking any heroic action, and Charlotte Le Bon as a surprise addition to the proceedings. But it’s the performances and the twisted chemistry of Ms. Edgar-Jones and Mr. Stan that allows the premise to work and Act 3 to not quite slip into full blown absurdity. Without giving anything else away, I can admit that this referendum on dating and people, presented as a horror film, struck me as a blend of PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN (2020), GET OUT (2017), and a personal favorite, EATING RAOUL (1982).

Streaming exclusively on HULU beginning March 4, 2022