'Where the Crawdads Sing' review: Bestselling novel doesn't translate to the big screen
Courtesy of Sony
Four years ago, Delia Ownes’ “Where the Crawdads Sing,” a southern tale about abandonment and broken families, became a runaway smash, amassing legions of fans, (including Taylor Swift who provides the title track in the film), staying on major bestseller lists for 135 weeks. It was only a matter of time before Hollywood would come knocking, hoping to monetize and repackage what people adored about the novel into a worthwhile cinematic adaptation. That it ended up produced by Reese Witherspoon, a southerner herself, with the production arm of Hello Sunshine is no surprise, and one could even see the Oscar winner playing the lead role in another decade, but the bitter truth about “Where the Crawdads Sing,” is it’s neither as engrossing or sentimental as the premise would suggest. Rather, a flat and one dimensional literary adaptation soaked in melodramatic plot threads and cringy dialogue. It might work for the intended audience, but they deserved better.
British actress Daisy Edgar-Jones (“Fresh” and “Under the Banner of Heaven”) brings minor gravatas to the lead role of Kya (though everyone in the movie attempts a southern accent except for her), who we first meet as a young whippersnapper (played as a child by Jojo Regina) in the backwoods of the Carolina swamp in the mid 1960s. Mom left when she was little, as did her older siblings, which meant her abusive father (played in caricature mode by Garret Dillahunt) raised her until he also eventually skips town. The only folks who show the “marsh girl” any type of compassion is the Black couple who run the local general store.
How Kya manages to survive and overcome these hefty obstacles isn’t something inherently explored in the film adaptation, it assumes the viewer can make sense of how a pre-teen managed to barter, trade, cook and use her resources while never going to school. Admirably, she teaches herself how to become successful without a massive support system, but director Olivia Newman and screenwriter Lucy Alibar don’t balance these crucial details against the obligatory love-triangle with two fellas who look as though they just walked out of an Abercrombie and Fitch magazine.
Those men are Tate (Taylor John Smith), an old childhood friend who was someone Kya could sometimes count on, but his bigger aspirations of getting a college degree steers him away; and Chase (Harris Dickinson), the egotistical bad boy who anyone with a brain can see is bad news. Then there’s Tom Milton (David Stratharin - bringing levity when it’s needed) a small-town lawyer who takes Kya as his client after she’s wrongly accused of Chase’s murder (yes there’s a murder plot!). Of course, if it were the court of public opinion that decides trials, Kya would already be hanged in the streets because the people who inhabit her little Carolina town have no doubts she’s guilty. The mob-like mentality against Kya often yields laughs more than frustration, because from what I could see (at least in the film) it’s not evident how she wrongs these people. If anything, they should be apologizing.
From here, “Where the Crawdads Sing” awkwardly shifts between past romances and the current trial. The courtroom scenes have all the flair of a Lifetime movie with wooden staging, bullet point arguments and a gentle presentation that never makes a compelling case despite Strathairn’s best efforts to bring some umph; the clingy, subdued romances aren’t rich with chemistry either. One has to imagine in a better filmmaker's hand, the raw grittiness clearly exemplified in these sequences might have realized their full potential. But as is, “Where the Crawdads Sing” unfortunately sticks to the basics, which for some will go down like the warm comfort food they were expecting, while others might have hoped for more surprises and at least a couple filmmaking initiatives.
From an outside perspective, it’s sad “Where the Crawdads Sing” doesn’t give much insight or background into Kya’s fractured lifestyle beside the town folks, smarmy boyfriends, and the court of public opinion individual commentaries. Never does it feel like Kya is in charge of her own destiny nor does the move make the viewer understand her rise from uneducated swamp girl to a world renowned illustrator with a variety of publishing deals. What was Kya thinking during the trial where the death penalty is on the table? How did she cope with a life that betrayed her at nearly every corner? What “Where the Crawdads Sing” eventually gives audiences is another underwritten female protagonist who has plenty to give, but ends up held back by tidy and routine narrative cliches.
Read the book instead.
WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING is now playing in theaters.