Too many missed notes in novel adaptation
'Where the Crawdads Sings' scores 2 out of 5 stars
Based on the massively popular novel by the same name, the new period drama Where the Crawdads Sing tells the story of Kya Clark (Daisy Edgar-Jones), an underprivileged, but resourceful girl living in 1950s North Carolina. Abandoned by her mother, then her siblings, and finally by her abusive and alcoholic father, Kya learns to live on her own within their marsh-bound home. She meets fellow nature-lover Tate (Taylor John Smith) while boating through the wetlands one day and a romance blooms between the two, until Tate unintentionally serves Kya with another round of abandonment when he leaves for college. She finds a rebound in the form of the football-playing Chase (Harris Dickinson), who commits to his relationship with Kya, but also seems to be harboring secrets.
The film’s framework is set around the discovery of Chase’s body under a fire tower in 1969 and the correlated trial a year later, in which Kya finds herself the lone murder suspect. Because the reclusive Kya is something of a local pariah, dubbed “The Marsh Girl” by unfeeling natives in the area, there aren’t many attorneys jumping at the opportunity to represent her in court. Once Kya is detained, the kindly lawyer Tom Milton (David Strathairn) ultimately steps up to her defense, and during the trial we’re shown extensive flashbacks that detail Kya’s time with Chase leading up to his death. With witnesses and evidence stacking up against her, Kya’s life is in Milton’s hands as he fights to defend her innocence.
Besides being touted as a book club pick by co-producer Reese Witherspoon, a big part of what made the best-seller that inspired Where the Crawdads Sing eclipse 12 million copies is its rich depictions of nature around the fictional town of Barkley Cove.
Kya is drawn to ethology from a young age, and her illustrations of the wildlife in the area eventually catch the eye of publishers looking to detail the Carolina swamplands. The film’s location work and sound design does a great job of adapting author Delia Owens’ descriptive prose to the frame, filling the aural and visual space with natural wonders for the endlessly curious Kya to document. In this context, every chirp and croak of this sonic landscape helps envelop us in her world even further.
Unfortunately, this intricate and evocative backdrop is squandered on a movie that unfolds like a Nicholas Sparks adaptation mixed with an overwrought courtroom drama. Director Olivia Newman bounces back and forth between the two timelines with too little attention being paid to the rhythm and tone of the narrative. But no matter when we are in the story, the events play like paperback pablum bogged down in romance and legal drama tropes.
Even if we didn’t know from the start that Chase would end up dead, it’s obvious from his first interaction with Kya that they shouldn’t be together, and that she has a deeper connection with Tate. It’s a strained love triangle wherein the movie indulges an obviously bad point of the triangle for too much of the running time.
With her presence in Hulu projects Fresh and Under the Banner of Heaven this year, 24-year-old Edgar-Jones is clearly trying to get herself out there early in her burgeoning career. This is a tricky role because Kya is a very withdrawn person, and in trying to stay true to the character, you run the risk as an actor of not emoting enough for the audience to connect with you. Although it’s not an unforgettable performance, Edgar-Jones does a fine job overall, but the rest of the cast is generally forgettable.
Smith and Dickinson are handsome bores as the love interests, and Strathairn is reliable as the tender litigator, but it’s firmly within his expected wheelhouse.
If you’re a devotee to the source material, Where the Crawdads Sing may float your boat, but for someone like me who wasn’t wrapped up in the literary sensation, it was dead in the water.
New movies coming this weekend
Coming to theaters is Nope, a Jordan Peele sci-fi movie starring Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer about a pair of ranch-owning siblings who attempt to capture video evidence of an unidentified flying object with the help of a tech salesman and a documentarian.
Premiering on Netflix is The Gray Man, an action thriller starring Ryan Gosling and Chris Evans about a CIA mercenary who is on the run from a merciless former colleague after accidentally uncovering dark agency secrets.
Streaming on Amazon Prime is Anything’s Possible, a coming-of-age rom-com starring Eva Reign and Abubakr Ali about a high school student who summons up the courage to ask a transgender teen on a date.