It’s easy to see why Dalia Owens’s Where the Crawdads Sing became a best-seller. It has all the ingredients to attract a wide audience: an underdog heroine with an abusive father lives in a marsh in South Carolina that makes her a literal outsider to the people of the nearest town, who treat her as a kind of freak…all except one sensitive boy who becomes her friend and personal tutor. He seems to be the ideal partner to help guide her through life…then life takes an unexpected turn. In Lucy Alibar’s adaptation of the novel, the person known as Marsh Girl is on trial for murdering the town’s most popular preppy quarterback.

Daisy Edgar-Jones, an up-and-comer whose television work on such series as Normal People and Under the Banner of Heaven has built a strong reputation, effortlessly commands the big screen. She fully inhabits the character of Kya Clark and we never doubt for a moment that she is completely at home in her environment. Nor do we question why the film’s young leading men, Taylor John Smith or Harris Dickinson, would be attracted to her. That these actors play near-stereotypical characters is a mild complaint; they serve the story well.

The main character has several guardian angels and one of them, played by the reliable David Strathairn, volunteers to serve as her defense attorney. He tries to unlock the mystery of the Marsh Girl in order to plead her case. But her ultimate secret is not revealed until the very end of the picture.

Director Olivia Newman and her mostly female collaborators bring the book to life with great care and skill. This is a movie where mood and atmosphere are crucial, and the filmmakers get it right. That’s a tribute to cinematographer Polly Morgan, production designer Sue Chan, composer Mychael Danna, and all their colleagues.

But it’s Daisy Edgar-Jones, whose face registers beautifully in tight closeups, who carries the weight of the bucolic story, set mostly in the 1960s. Neatly camouflaging her British accent, she invites us into her world and makes us care about an oddball heroine who collects bird feathers and studies the lives of insects and birds. Where the Crawdads Sing may be a chick flick in some people’s estimation, but I was thoroughly absorbed and recommend it highly.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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April 2024