‘Where the Crawdads Sing’…Is Within a Dull, Well-Scrubbed Southern Gothic Mediocrity
The big-screen treatment of a bestseller, a well-scrubbed Southern Gothic, a next-gen star’s showcase, a romance-murder-mystery-courtroom-drama-dessert-topping-floor-wax, The Movie That Would Be The Notebook — these are some of the ways to describe Where the Crawdads Sing, the adaptation of Delia Shannon’s book-club staple about love and death among the marshlands. (The nicer ways, at least.) If you’re among the gajillions who’ve read the novel, you know the premise: In 1969, a body is found near an observation tower in Barkley Cove, North Carolina. The victim either fell or was pushed. There are no fingerprints or footprints near the scene of the crime. But there is a prime suspect: a young woman named Kya who’s spent most of her life living completely on her own, deep in the swamp. She’s considered dim-witted, degenerate and a danger to “polite” society by the local townsfolk. Naturally, she must be the murderer. You can never judge a book by its cover, however. Unless the tome in question is Shannon’s pageturner, of course — in which you absolutely know what you’re getting into before you’ve even cracked the spine.
As the kindly lawyer (David Strathairn, at his most David Strathairn-iest) who’s come out to retirement to represent her preps his defense, we get to know who the accused is and what she’s been through. A child living in the Carolina wild circa 1953, the seven-year-old Kya Clark (Jojo Regina) was stuck in a nightmare version of a Lil’ Abner comic strip: extreme poverty, domestic abuse courtesy of a volatile father (Garret Dillahunt), abandonment by her mother — and, eventually, all of her older siblings — as well as being mocked for her illiteracy and showing up at school shoeless and filthy. When Dad takes off as well, the kid people derisively call the “Marsh Girl” is left completely on her own. An African-American couple (Sterling Macer Jr. and Michael Hyatt) who runs a modest general store helps her when they can. But she quickly has to learn how to fend for herself.
Cut to the 1960s, and the older Kya (Daisy Edgar-Jones) has managed to live isolated from the world while sustaining herself for years. She’s still a pariah, but is now also an accomplished artist, specializing in drawing the flora, fauna and feral creatures who call the Carolina shores home; she can spew out facts about the local birds and chat about what marine life is indigenous to the surroundings like a scholar. Plus she has a knack for turning her desolate domicile into a down-home designer’s dream; when she spots a land developer taking photos around the property, your first assumption is that he’s shooting a spread for Swamp Dweller Chic Quarterly. A handsome young neighbor named Tate (Taylor John Smith) begins teaching her how to read and write, as well as encouraging Kya to send her pictures in to book publishers, because she’s that good! And he’s that good-hearted! A love between the two blooms, resulting in the young woman’s first real taste of happiness, the joy of backlit kisses at sunset, and many, many clinches involving water and various states of mutual dampness. (We weren’t kidding about re: that Notebook crack above.)
Soon, Tate leaves for college and their rural Eden is interrupted. It also gains a snake, in the form of Chase Andrews (Harris Dickinson). He’s the kind of smooth-talking, Teflon rich-kid with a heart of coal that screams “Future Alleged Rapist Turned Supreme Court Justice.” Chase gives the appearance of being a nice guy. Then he becomes aggressive, which morphs into outright abusive, and peaks at whatever level is right above when-anger-management-issues-turn-homicidal. The fact that this golden boy’s family is well-known, and that Tate has just returned to town, complicates matters. Suddenly, you remember why Kya is in jail, and doesn’t that corpse we met in the film’s opening few minutes look mighty familiar right about now….
This is all Melodrama Catnip 101, and you can see why so many folks might have thrilled to this on the purple-prosed page. And while director Olivia Newman (First Match) and screenwriter Lucy Alibar (Beasts of the Southern Wild) retain the book’s breathless, beach-read momentum — sudden violence! love triangles! plot surprises! incredibly photorealistic sketches of shells! — there doesn’t seem to be much of a spark in the engine powering these narrative turns. Can a movie be both hyperventilating and lackluster at the same time? Can you film in real Southern locations, among actual cypress and tupelo trees, and still make folks feel like they’re witnessing a backlot version of the backwoods? It’s a rare movie that gives you incredible regional scenery yet curiously, very little sense of a region, any region, at all. We don’t need a sweaty Tennessee Williams hothouse for these flowers, but such a torrid story set in such an anodyne South feels all sorts of wrong. Who wants a room-temperature barn-burner, even if it comes with Straithairn engaging in Atticus Finch cosplay?
Thanks to millions of paperback copies sold and the efforts of high-profile fans like Reese Witherspoon (who went from picking this for her book club to signing on as a producer) and Taylor Swift (who contributed a new song), Where the Crawdads Sing comes with a large built-in fanbase, and the chance to see Kya strut and fret her hour upon the screen may make them more tolerant of the sluggish portrayal of her journey. They will likely have no issue with the actor who brings Shannon’s tender conservationist/tough survivor to life, however. To say that Daisy Edgar-Jones is the best thing about this adaptation sounds like she merely wins the honor by default, and the Normal People‘s star decision to severely underplay the character occasionally makes you want to check Kya for a pulse.
Yet her tamped-down take on this marshland martyr makes her stand above the interchangeable male leads, the random pearl-clutching background players, and the one-size-defiance-fits-all narrative she has to navigate. There’s a keen sense of intelligence and observation going on behind Edgar-Jones’ eyes, and her transference of those qualities to this beleaguered heroine makes you believe there’s a real person suffering through this pop-lit Passion Play. It won’t give her the level up she deserves. But it does suggest she won’t have to sing such generic ballads for much longer.