Based on the wildly popular 2018 novel by Delia Owens, “Where the Crawdads Sing” is a romantic coming-of-age murder mystery set in the marshes of North Carolina. Directed by Olivia Newman, this big screen adaptation stars the immensely talented Daisy Edgar-Jones (so good in the deliciously wicked horror thriller “Fresh” from earlier this year). I haven’t read the book, but the premise is rich with potential. And Edgar-Jones is a young actress with a big future ahead, assuming she’s given the right roles to shine.
Unfortunately, “Where the Crawdads Sing” doesn’t give Edgar-Jones the kind of material that really emphasizes her talent. To be clear, there’s nothing at all wrong with her performance. In fact, she’s a big reason why certain parts of the movie work as well as they do, But she’s handcuffed by a role that has her spending too much time as an observer, often looking on with a doe-eyed innocence and naivety. Her character is the story’s centerpiece and she definitely evolves over the course of the movie. But I can think of several ways a story like this could have better utilized its lead.
However, despite those limitations, Edgar-Jones’ ability to pick up the movie and carry it on her back is a testament to her acting prowess. She quietly conveys both vulnerability and resilience; a deep longing and a strong female spirit. Most importantly, she’s able to make us care for her character, Kya Clark, a resourceful young woman who has grown up in a world of rejection and abandonment. It’s a heartbreaking story, and although it relies too much on soapy melodrama and dutiful box-checking, Edgar-Jones is a strong anchor who keeps us invested even as we’re questioning much of what we see.
Written by Lucy Alibar (“Beasts of the Southern Wild”), the story unfolds across two timelines. In 1969, Kya is arrested and charged with the murder of Chase Andrews (Harris Dickinson), the son of a prominent family in the small North Carolina town of Barkley Cove. His body was found at the base of fire tower where he had fallen several stories to his death. Despite an alarming lack of evidence, Kya is apprehended and put on trial. While the townsfolk in Barkley Cove are quick to brand Kya guilty, she finds an ally in a sympathetic retired lawyer named Tom Milton (the always reliable David Strathairn) who takes her case out of the goodness of his own heart.
The second timeline sets out to explore Kya’s past, beginning with her turbulent childhood and continuing up to the events just prior to her arrest. As a child, she and her family lived in a shack deep in the marshlands some five miles from Barkley Cove. Kya’s father (Garret Dillahunt) was an abusive man who routinely beat her mother (Ahna O’Reilly) and her siblings. One by one starting with her ma, her family members left, leaving her alone with her father. One morning she woke up to find him gone too. Left to fend for herself, Kya leans on everything she has learned living in the marsh to survive.
Kya’s resourcefulness helps her build a quiet reclusive life for herself in the marsh. Her lone contacts in the ‘real world’ are Jumpin (Sterling Macer, Jr.) and his wife Mabel (Michael Hyatt), a kindly black couple who own a dockside general store. Though routinely confronted by the not-so-subtle prejudices of the Barkley Cove folks, Jumpin and Mabel maintain a quiet dignity. Kya trades them freshwater mussels for sacks of grits, candles, and gas for her boat motor. They may not always need what Kya brings in, but they never let her know it. Kya certainly doesn’t get that kind of compassion from the other locals. To them she’s know as “marsh girl” and they’ve built an entire area legend about her out of gossip and lies.
Things seem to take a turn for Kya when she connects with an outgoing neighbor named Tate (Taylor John Smith). The two hit it off and soon a sweet but cheesy room-temperature romance blooms. That is until Tate heads off to college in Chapel Hill. He pledges he’ll return soon. But as Kya watches him ride off in his boat, you get the sense that she knows he’s not coming back. Months pass and Kya catches the eye of Chase Andrews, a popular cornball preppy from town. And is where the movie takes a serious dive.
Kya and Chase haven’t a spark of chemistry, and their scenes together are dry and flat. Even worse, Chase is such an obvious slimeball that Kya’s willingness to so easily toss aside her self-sufficiency and discernment is frustrating. Again, it’s an issue with the writing that undermines the characters, especially Kya. Of course we know from the earliest scene that Chase ends up dead which leads to the courtroom scenes that, despite Strathairn’s earnest and convincing presence, fail to serve up any real suspense.
“Where the Crawdads Sing” has as much tragedy (and water) as a Nicholas Sparks movie (not necessarily a good thing). It’s too mushy in spots and some of the second half story mechanics are hard to buy. Yet there are still bright spots in Newman’s direction, in Edgar-Jones’ performance, and in the film’s visuals which pictures the marshland setting through a more romanticized lens. But when all squashed together, the results are uneven, stripped down, and too squeaky clean. It’ll leave you wishing for the kind of movie this could have been. “Where the Crawdads Sing” is out now in theaters.