WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING (2022)

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 A local nice guy attorney (David Strathairn) takes the case and shy, withdrawn Kya provides little help in her defense.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

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THE SOUVENIR: PART II (2021)

November 12, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. We tend to think of ‘coming-of-age’ movies as centered on teenagers as they face the challenges of transitioning into adulthood. The reality is that folks come of age during different phases of life (and some seemingly never do). Filmmaker Joanna Hogg continues her autobiographical look back with the follow-up to her exceptional 2019 arthouse film. Is it a sequel? Technically, yes; but it’s more of a continuation, and the two parts actually function best as a single 4-hour story.

Starting off shortly after the first movie ended, part two finds Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) in bed at her parents’ house. They try to comfort her as she grieves the death of Anthony (played so well in the first by Tom Burke). For those who have not seen the 2019 film, I’ll tread lightly as it should be seen prior to this one due to the continuing story line and numerous references. Despite her confusion and despondency, Julie heads back to film school. Using art to deal with her emotions, she starts all over with the script for her graduation film. The Film School committee of like-minded middle-aged men thrash her idea of dealing with her situation on film. Despite their harsh words, she persists.

For such a ‘quiet’ movie, it’s astonishing how many things are going on in Ms. Hogg’s film and in Julie’s world. The jealousies of film school students are noted, as are the discrepancies between overly confident young filmmakers (a brilliant Richard Ayoade) and those still trying to find their voice (Julie). Ayoade’s arrogant Patrick is recognizable to us as a big production filmmaker in the vein of many who have come before him. On the other hand, Julie stumbles over how best to convey the emotions for the actors in her film … a film that is so personal she’s dealing with memories even while setting up scenes.

Honor Swinton Byrne (Tilda Swinton’s daughter) excels at relaying a certain sadness in Julie as she pushes onward. Anthony’s ghost hovers everywhere for her. She bravely visits his parents. The confusion over Anthony’s story, and her shock at not having recognized the signs, are exemplified as she presents the common façade of appearing OK while struggling inside. Julie’s parents, played by (the always great) Tilda Swinton and James Spencer Ashworth walk on egg shells around her, while trying to offer support, despite their detachment – not just from the relationship, but from Julie’s life in general (other than lending her money in times of need).

Supporting work comes from Charlie Heaton, Harris Dickinson, and Ariane Labed, as student actors. In Julie’s film, Ms. Labed plays the role of Julie, which in reality, is the role of Ms. Hogg as a young aspiring filmmaker. Joe Alwyn has a terrific cameo as Julie’s editor in one of the most awkward and tender scenes. Ms. Hogg did not film the two parts simultaneously, but her style is so unique (as an example, songs cut off abruptly mid-scene) that it’s a challenge not to rave about the look and feel. Her talented collaborators include Film Editor Helle le Fevre, who serves up some creative transitions; Production Designer Stephane Collonge, whose sets are crucial in a film with minimal dialogue; and Cinematographer David Radeker whose lensing gives the film the perfect look for its time. Tilda Swinton stars in Ms. Hogg’s upcoming film, THE ETERNAL DAUGHTER; however, we will have to be patient to see if Honor Swinton Byrne continues to pursue acting, a profession to which she seems destined.

In theaters beginning November 12, 2021

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*link to my review of THE SOUVENIR (2019)