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 A local nice guy attorney (David Strathairn) takes the case and shy, withdrawn Kya provides little help in her defense.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