The 2018 bestselling novel, Where the Crawdads Sing, written by Delia Owens, was a beachside page-turner that captured a youthfulness in the hearts of its readers. Spending over 150 weeks on the New York Times Bestseller list, the novel was a global sensation that had its status further propelled by Oscar-winner Reese Witherspoon as the novel was featured on her popular book club, leading her to produce this feature film adaptation. The novel, set in the marshes of North Carolina, is a southern gothic melodrama inspired primarily by the literary classic, To Kill a Mockingbird. Blending a murder mystery with romance and courtroom drama, the novel has become a true phenomenon with a devout fanbase. The cinematic adaptation, produced by Witherspoon’s production company, Hello Sunshine, promises a thrilling mystery that can only be seen in theaters, currently a marketplace that has all but relegated films like this to big streaming companies as “content” for subscribers. While it’s disheartening to see such a genre struggle to stay alive in the theatrical marketplace, Where the Crawdads Sing is a film sure to satisfy the droves of fans of the novel, even if you wish the actual film was much better.
Kya (Daisy Edgar-Jones, Fresh, Hulu’s Normal People) is a resilient young woman living in the Marshes of Barkly Cove, North Carolina amidst the 1950’s and 60’s. Abandoned by most of her family at a young age, Kya lives alone, forced to raise herself in the Marsh. For most townsfolk, Kya is known as “The Marsh Girl”, an outcast whose relationship with the natural world is deemed too strange for their modest way of living. When local golden boy, Chase Andrews (Harris Dickinson, Beach Rats) is found dead having fallen — or pushed — off a fire tower, Kya is deemed the primary suspect. The outsider is put on trial for Chase’s murder, having to prove her innocent alongside her retired lawyer (David Strathairn, adding some credibility to the film’s cast). The film thuddingly bounces back and forth between two storylines. The courtroom drama plotline that coasts by on typical southern gothic clichés — fit with the kind of typical courtroom dialogue made up of sentences starting with “isn’t it true?” and constant truth bombs that leave the over-active courtroom audience gasping — and the secondary plotline, consisting of flashbacks to a decade-spanning love triangle between Kya, the sweet, but cold-footed Tate (Taylor John Smith, Shadow in the Cloud) and the handsome, but two-faced Chase Andrews.
The flashback structure is clumsily told, with entire sections of the film feeling sluggish. The lack of narrative urgency for most of the first hour makes the 125 minute runtime feel longer than it actually is. It isn’t until the film presents its core love triangle featuring some smoldering romance that things begin to feel alive. The relationship between Kya and Tate is endearing with Jones and Smith sharing a real charismatic screen chemistry with one another. Tate teaches Kya how to read and write leading to such lines of dialogue as “I didn’t know words could hold that much” teetering on Nicolas Sparks territory. The dynamic between Kya and Chase gives Jones and Dickinson more meaty material to chew on, with Dickinson being too good an actor for such a thinly written villain-type. It’s unfortunate the script doesn’t allow for much complexity with most characters serving a single purpose and not much more. Amusingly, both Taylor John Smith and Harris Dickinson share a striking resemblance to Witherspoon’s ex, actor Ryan Phillippe.
The script is credited to Beasts of the Southern Wild co-writer, Lucy Alibar, a film whose specific, lyrical feeling of youthful freedom among the wild is clearly being aimed at. Where the Crawdads Sing hits its narrative beats with as much sterility as a tired biopic hits all the notes of its subjects life. The film merely checks off every major plot point from the novel in attempts to give its audience exactly what they want, over delving into its most interesting components. The film’s core mystery is even played as an afterthought, all in service of a final coda that simply begs for a more developed and coherent screen treatment. There is very little sense of rhythm to the films pacing, with major moments coming across as rushed and superficial where it should be cutting somewhat deep. The material doesn’t have that wacky lunacy of a Nicolas Sparks adaptation, just basic melodrama that relies on its actors, particularly Jones, to carry you through the dull spots.
It’s a testament to Jones’ star power by how much the film is carried on her shoulders. Her performance is lived in, one that’s more gentle and honest than the showy, melodramatic heroine the films direction may occasionally ask from her. You can’t help but become involved in the character’s journey with a portrayal this engrossing. Consider this performance as the glue that holds together much of the film. Witherspoon’s production company Hello Sunshine heavily leaned on female voices to help tell this story with nearly all production leads being women. It’s a smart move, as the film does benefit from a specific sense of femininity in its narrative perspective.
Director Olivia Newman (First Match) captures the elegance of Kya’s lifestyle, as well as a visual sense of grace. The film holds a glossy, but vibrant look with several noteworthy flourishes by cinematographer Polly Morgan (A Quiet Place Part 2). The Carolina Marshes are beautifully captured, feeling textured and absorbing. Newman’s direction aims for a fable-like presentation, but sorely lacks the soul needed to pull it off. The actors and production details all look and sound the part, but not particularly felt. This is a depiction of a Marshland in which no one is ever dirty or visibly sweats. Most of the films sense of atmosphere comes from the end credits song “Carolina” by Taylor Swift.
Where the Crawdads Sing works best as a star-making vehicle for actor Daisy Edgar-Jones. This big screen adaptation lacks the dynamic storytelling prowess needed to truly stick the landing. This is a film that cares more about presenting its audience with what they want to see, over adapting the novel into a compelling piece of cinema.