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 A local nice guy attorney (David Strathairn) takes the case and shy, withdrawn Kya provides little help in her defense.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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STILLWATER (2021)

July 29, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. It’s understandable if you are taken in by a trailer that hints at a movie featuring an unknown dad going non-stop in cold pursuit of justice for his daughter (those numerous Liam Neeson references were for my own pleasure). In fact, this father has his own particular set of skills: he’s a master at carpentry and electrical, he speaks the Oklahoma version of English, and he owns two guns (neither of which he has with him). And yes, this film is billed as a crime thriller, but you should know, we see very little crime, and the thrills are mostly non-existent. Despite all that, I connected with the story, not as a thriller, but rather as a character study of a flawed man trying to do the right thing by his daughter and find redemption for himself.

Oscar winner Matt Damon plays Bill Baker, a quiet out of work oil worker whom we first see on a clean-up crew after a disastrous tornado. Not long after, he’s on an international flight to Marseille to visit his daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin). She’s been incarcerated for five years after being found guilty of stabbing her French-Arab lover, Lina, to death. In a highly publicized trial, Allison held fast to her claim of innocence, and still does. Her father visits regularly, delivering supplies and clean laundry. Although they hug on the visits, a definite chasm exists. We later learn that Bill previously struggled with drugs and alcohol and never received votes for Father of the Year. Allison asks her father to deliver a sealed letter to her attorney claiming there is new evidence in her case – she heard a guy named Akim had bragged at a party about committing Lina’s murder.

You likely noticed the similarities to the 2007 Amanda Knox case. The differences being that was Italy, this is France; and it was Amanda’s roommate, not lover. In this movie, the media fascination is derived from the ‘rich’ entitled American white girl brutally murdering her minority working class lesbian lover (a textbook Hollywood rendering). Allison growing up poor in Oklahoma mattered little to the media.

Damon plays Bill as a stoic, Heartland of America man who’ll do anything for “his little girl”. But he’s no Jason Bourne. He’s the proverbial fish-out-of-water on this mission. He doesn’t speak a bit of French, and depends on the kindness of local actress Virginie (Camille Cottin, ALLIED, 2016) to be his interpreter and cultural guide in a world he doesn’t comprehend. Bill quickly bonds with Virginie’s precocious daughter Maya (a sterling film debut by Lilou Siauvaud), and soon a platonic family unit has formed. Bill’s frequent prayers and odd American manners are the perfect cultural clash with Virginie’s artsy French ways. Of course, this ultimately leads to a shift in the platonic nature of their relationship.

The film is directed by Tom McCarthy, an Oscar winner for SPOTLIGHT (2015). I highly recommend two of his other films, the excellent THE VISITOR (2007), and his sinfully under-seen directorial debut THE STATION AGENT (2003). McCarthy co-wrote this script with Marcus Hinchey, Thomas Bidegain, and Noe Debre, which explains why the French details are so spot on. Cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi delivers brilliant camera work to go with the story’s methodical pacing, and Mychael Danna’s music adds intensity and depth to situations both quiet and fraught with emotion. Damon does some of his best work here as a man burdened with his own past and slowly becoming aware of possible personal and family life redemption. Ms. Breslin burst on the scene in 2006 with LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE, and she has transitioned well to adult roles … though this role is somewhat abbreviated, she still does nice work in her scene with Maya and Virginie.

Bill and Virginie and Maya have some terrific segments together, including a dance to Sammi Smith’s “Help Me Make it Through the Night”. I’m guessing the rousing applause the film and actors received at Cannes was due partly to its French setting, and also to the depth of Bill’s character (and Damon’s performance). There are elements that seem far-fetched and maybe even overly complex, but viewed as the story of one man, it delivers some thought-provoking topics to the big screen. And yes, “life is brutal”.

Opens in Theaters Friday, July 30

WATCH THE TRAILER