Content warning: This piece contains references to sexual assault.
Minor spoilers ahead. At its core, Where The Crawdads Sing is a story about survival. The Reese Witherspoon-produced film, based on Delia Owens’ 2018 novel of the same name, is about a girl who grows up in almost total isolation, fending for herself and finding solace in the marshes surrounding her North Carolina home. And while our protagonist Kya Clarke (Daisy Edgar-Jones) does face — and ultimately master — the elements, literally surviving by harvesting mussels to sell for meager ingredients, there’s another kind of survival that gives this story its impact.
From almost the moment we are introduced to Kya as a young girl growing up in poverty in North Carolina, mental and physical abuse are as commonplace in her life as the reeds in a marsh that surrounds her. From an early age, Kya watches her mother, brothers, and sisters leave their family home one by one after suffering both physical and emotional abuse at the hands of her father — a survivor of trauma as a result of fighting in World War II.
When her father ultimately abandons her to the marsh, Kya is increasingly inundated with emotional and verbal abuse. She’s ostracized and misunderstood by the people in town who call her “The Marsh Girl,” and frequently mock and harass her. As she gets older and begins dating, she faces further pressures and abuses, particularly with her second boyfriend Chase Andrews (Harris Dickinson), who consistently pushes Kya’s emotional and physical boundaries. Kya ultimayely concedes to him and agrees to sex in order to feel some form of affection.
But within all of these traumas, Kya looks for inventive ways to grow beyond them, even if they’re subtle. Young Kya, trapped at home because of her father, weathers his abuse, but manages to adapt and create her own safe space within this environment, going out into the marsh. Afraid to venture back into town to attend school as a young woman, Kya instead takes to learning on her own, documenting and drawing the various wildlife she encounters on the marsh. Later, she befriends a local boy and love interest Tate (Taylor John Smith), who teaches her how to read and write in exchange for bird’s feathers — which Kya collects and gifts him.
These moments of resiliency are special for actor Edgar-Jones. “Her resilience just was a part of the character that I really found very inspiring, and I wanted to really imbue her with that,” Edgar-Jones tells Refinery29.
This ability to survive truly comes to a head when Kya is violently confronted by former boyfriend Chase, when she breaks up with him after finding out he’s engaged to someone else, and in return he hits her and begins to sexually assault her. Watching Kya writhe around in the sand, trying to find purchase to push herself up and her attacker away, is an unsettling moment for the audience — but it was equally as tough for Edgar-Jones to film. Though painful, the scene is also a monumental turning point for the character: It’s the first time she’s ever really defended herself. “It was definitely a cathartic moment when Kya is able to fight back,” Edgar-Jones says. “She's [been] pushed, and pushed, and pushed.”
“ I think that's a very human quality, we all suffer in various ways — hopefully not to the extent of Kya — but we suffer hardships throughout our life and are able to bounce back and continue pushing forward.”
Which makes Kya’s eventual decision in the film’s finale the ultimate act of resiliency and survival. It’s a point that’s hammered home in the final scenes of Kya’s life onscreen, when Edgar-Jones — in a voiceover — states: “I don’t know if there’s a dark side to nature, just inventive ways to endure.” The quote, found in both the movie and the book, struck Edgar–Jones. “I think [Kya] has to endure quite a lot, and I think in that case, when she's backed into a corner, she will do what she can to survive and overcome it,” she says.
The comparison between nature and Kya as a sort of symbolic self makes sense, both from a literary perspective (which fans of the book will probably love) and practically, considering it’s the environment she grew up in and knew best. “Kya has spent a lot of time learning about herself and about the world through her observations of nature,” Edgar-Jones says. “She says, ‘In nature there is no judgment, it's really about survival,’ and for Kya her main understanding of interactions between humans is based on her knowledge of animals and wildlife.”
And like nature — which continues to cycle through its seasons, growing and regrowing after weathering every harsh winter or human tribulation — Kya also perseveres and survives, first, by quelling her father’s physical abuse through kindness, overcoming the ostracization of the town by educating herself and ultimately becoming a published author, and ultimately, in her final decision with Chase Andrews (though we’re not necessarily advocating for that).
“She had so many hardships throughout her life, and despite that, she's able to continue pushing forward and remain hopeful and overcome a huge amount of loss and strife,” Edgar-Jones says. “ I think that's a very human quality, we all suffer in various ways — hopefully not to the extent of Kya — but we suffer hardships throughout our life and are able to bounce back and continue pushing forward.”
If you have experienced sexual violence and are in need of crisis support, please call the RAINN Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).