The ethereal creature that moves through the North Carolina swamps looks like a mythical figure from legend. Her story is mysterious. The residents of the small town of Barkley Cove don’t even know the real name of Kyas, who occasionally shows up in the small community to run errands or buy gas for her motorboat. Here she is just called “march girl”; when she walks down the street, the men and women glance at her furtively.
The young men in particular are becoming more attentive as this pale creature in a little summer dress or cut-off jeans grows into a young woman in a wondrous way. Her sexuality, which surrounds her like a natural aura in the soft backlight of the ferns and bald cypresses, has a threatening effect in the rural southern states of the 1960s, even before the summer of love.
When the novel “The Song of the Crayfish” by the American zoologist Delia Owens was published in 2018, the coming-of-age story of the “march girl” quickly became one of the most successful debuts of the present. Reese Witherspoon featured the book on her influential literary show Hello Sunshine and shortly thereafter secured the film rights.
The actress, who as a producer (of the HBO series “Big Little Lies” among others) is now one of the most powerful women in Hollywood, has been pursuing her project for several years, more – and above all more diverse – female characters in American films and series to show. Catherine “Kya” Clark, abandoned as a child by her mother, then by her alcoholic father, and finally by her siblings in a cabin in the North Carolina swamps, fits this profile of rebellious young women.
Especially since the marshlands of the southern states, which have become literary in the “Southern Gothic” genre, in film and television – from “Beasts of the Southern Wild” to “True Detective” to Sofia Coppola’s “The Beguiled”) – have lost none of their mythical fascination to have.
But therein lies a problem with the film adaptation of Olivia Newman, who simply doesn’t have the inquiring eye of the zoologist Owens (or her female character Kya). Similar to the men in the film, Newman falls for her protagonist. Kya is played by British actress Daisy Edgar-Jones, who rose to fame with another female role model two years ago in the Normal People miniseries.
But Edgar-Jones’s porcelain pallor, which shines iridescently through the swampy flora and fauna, hardly relates to the arduous life in the swamps. Kya’s closeness to nature, when she draws the plants and grasses in her notebook, seems less due to her living conditions than to aesthetic motives. Her ethereal appearance is repeatedly broken in Edgar-Jones’ resolute acting. It’s not just the men in the film who tend to underestimate Kya; even as a spectator one falls for this production time and time again.
Kya repeatedly has to assert her independence in the confrontation with the male world, which is what Witherspoon most interested in Owens’ novel. Like the original, “The Song of the Crayfish” also runs on two timelines. The present day of the late 1960s takes place mostly in the courtroom, where attorney Tom Milton (David Strathairn) is defending Kya in a murder trial. Chase (Harris Dickinson) was found dead in the swamps; Kya, who had an affair with the sunny boy, is the prime suspect. In flashbacks, the film tells of Kya’s difficult growing up and her tender friendship with the fisherman’s son Tate (Taylor John Smith), who later leaves her for college in town.
The young people in The Song of the Crayfish look absurdly good – as if Witherspoon and Newman were eyeing the booming young adult market with their film adaptation. It is unfortunate that nature kitsch and love film clichés occasionally take over. But as a role model for young women (the theme song is sung by Taylor Swift), there are certainly worse role models than this Instagram love story.