Grade:  B+
Rated PG-13

Unlike many reviewers of Where the Crawdads Sing (2022), I don’t have an axe to grind or a subject to bludgeon. I never read the first novel by 70-year-old Delia Owens that this Olivia Newman film is based on, and only heard about the hype—a Reese Witherspoon book club selection that sold 12 million copies in four years—and the controversy after watching the film. For some people, Owens’ background makes a difference, so I’ll address it briefly, though even without the backstory there’s plenty enough to get riled up about.

The film, like the novel, tells the story of a girl who is forced to fend for herself in the marshes of North Carolina after her abusive father drives off her mother and older siblings, and later bows out of the picture as well. Shamefully, it doesn’t occur to any of her family to take her with them. They just take off, leaving her alone with him.

The townspeople aren’t much better. They dub her “the marsh girl” and obviously recognize her situation, but only one couple shows her any kindness. And they certainly could have done more for her. Kya attends school barefoot, but is treated so shabbily that she never returns. Later, as a teenager after living in the marsh for years, she draws the attention of two young men: one a rich boy with a penchant for partying and taking what he wants, and the other a college-bound youth who at one point decides to teach Kya how to read. Some think that sweet; others call it condescending and controlling or a perverse sort of  relationship imbalance fetish.

Maybe the razors were sharpened after it was brought to everyone’s attention that Owens, like Kya, was (and is still) a suspect in an unsolved murder. In the film, one of Kya’s suitors ends up dead and she stands trial, with David Straithairn playing the kind of down-home country lawyer with uncommon wisdom and empathy that we saw in Harper Lee’s attorney, Atticus Finch. In real life, Owens and husband Mark were working as biologists and environmentalists in Zambia and were being filmed when a poacher was shot and killed . . . on camera. The couple left the country and was advised not to return because they remain persons of interest, as shown on ABC’s 1996 special Deadly Game: The Mark and Delia Owens Story.

But back to the film. Lucy Alibar (Beasts of the Southern Wild) wrote the screenplay, Witherspoon co-produced, Polly Morgan (The Woman King) was responsible for the gorgeous location cinematography, Taylor Swift co-wrote and sang the theme song (“Carolina”), and Daisy Edgar-Jones (Normal People, Under the Banner of Heaven) headed a talented cast as Kya. Though men also are involved in the project, Where the Crawdads Sing feels very much like a female empowerment story and holds considerable appeal because of that.

Kya collects feathers and shells, not just to save them but to draw them and write about them. She’s a born naturalist, another John James Audubon whose sketches, as one character remarks, look like they came right out of an encyclopedia. It’s how she spends her time—how she prefers to spend her time. Being alone doesn’t trouble her; what troubles her is being sought out by people who want to displace her, whether for profit or for “her own good.” That, and memories of a battered mother who walked away one day, never to return.

It’s not a cheery tale, but it’s not bleak either. There’s something warm and engaging about Where the Crawdads Sing that seems the cumulative result of all the beautiful scenery and filming, Kya’s genuinely positive and stoic personality in the face of adversity, and Newman’s sympathetic treatment of her and her plight. The sexual episodes are subtly filmed so that nothing graphic is shown, and audiences are likely to take their cue from Kya, who fights when she needs to but otherwise takes everything in stride.

Like so many other courtroom dramas, Where the Crawdads Sing alternates between present-day events leading up to and including the trial in which she is charged with murder, and events of the past that tell the story of what happened . . . or at least a partial story. Not all the facts are revealed, and that has been another source of irritation for some viewers and critics. But I have no problem with subtlety, and I think leaving some things to the imagination is a good thing—especially when those things left out might turn out to be grisly.

Taylor John Smith appears as one suitor and Harris Dickinson as another, but it’s Strathairn and Edgar-Jones who command our attention. Meanwhile, Michael Hyatt and Sterling Macer Jr., as an older couple running a general store, remind us of how people ought to behave. These days, that’s no small or insignificant thing.

Rotten Tomatoes critics collectively gave Where the Crawdads Sing a stinging 34 percent “rotten” rating, which frankly seems ridiculous to me. As I said, I have no axe to grind. Not having read the book, I took this film on its own terms: a female-centric story that’s beautifully filmed and a murder mystery that, even if the “dunit” part of whodunit gets slighted, still builds credible tension and feels satisfying. Like Strathairn’s character, I’ll present one piece of evidence that seems compellingly supportive of my reaction to the film:  while only 34 percent of Rotten Tomato critics liked Where the Crawdads Sing, a whopping 96 percent of the audience liked it.

I rest my case.

Entire family:  No (teens and older)
Run time:  125 min. Color
Aspect ratio:  2.39:1 widescreen
Featured audio:  DTS-HDMA 5.1
Studio/Distributor:  Columbia/Sony
Bonus features:  B (includes a Swift lyric video)
Includes:  Blu-ray, DVD, Digital
Amazon link

Rated PG-13 for sexual content and some violence, including a sexual assault

Language:  3/10—No f-bombs, and infrequent use of lesser swearwords

Sex:  3/10—One sexual act is depicted onscreen where a character loses her virginity in a less-than-happy first time, and another occurs at a hotel where the sounds of a couple having sex are heard

Violence:  4/10—There is a violent attempted rape that is successfully fought off, and domestic abuse by a husband against his wife

Adult situations:  3/10—Characters drink wine at a dinner, the father is an alcoholic, and teens drink beer at parties and gatherings

Takeaway:  There’s almost a film tradition of young women coming of age in full or semi-isolation, and Where the Crawdads Sing does that tradition proud