Just before I went to see Where the Crawdads Sing, a friend of mine told me she had read the book by Delia Owens—and absolutely loved it. This gave me hope I was heading into a decent-enough cinematic experience.
Nope. This movie is terrible.
I can see traces of something interesting in this film, and I can understand how the story might’ve worked in a nice, big book rather than this shoddy movie. As you read, it’s very easy, and perhaps exciting, to imagine stuff like swamps, rustic cabins and a feral child living in a marsh by herself. The details aren’t nailed down; they can change fluidly with your imagination as you take in the words.
In a movie, those details are finite, and if you don’t get the right balance, a story like this one comes off as silly, predictable and boring—and in the case of the art direction for director Olivia Newman’s big-screen adaptation, those details can be far too polished and pretty. The habitat of this film, which is supposed to be set in the ’50s and ’60s in the North Carolina swamplands, looks pristine … and fake.
The extremely talented Daisy Edgar-Jones takes on the lead role of Kya Clark in her biggest project yet. (She was quite good in the horror film Fresh and the miniseries Under the Banner of Heaven.) The prelude shows Kya as a preteen (played competently by Jojo Regina) dealing with an abusive father (Garret Dillahunt) and abandonment by her mother (Ahna O’Reilly) and siblings. Young Kya is left to fend for herself in the swamplands, tooling around in a little motorboat in tidy waters that look like they came straight out of a Disney ride.
How does she fend for herself? She sells mussels to a kind local shop owner who—even though it is clear to him and his wife there is a very young girl abandoned in the swamplands—never alerts the authorities. They do, however, give her the occasional lollipop and used clothing, on top of 50 cents here and there.
Kya, of course, is super-talented and can draw. She keeps notebooks of these drawings, and, gee, I wonder if those sketches will come in handy somewhere down the road?
While she’s a talented artist, Kya grows up illiterate without an education. Enter the helpful Tate (Taylor John Smith), the film’s goofy take on a sort of Jesus figure/Prince Charming—the seemingly nice boy who will eventually behave predictably … and pave the way for the devil. That would be local sports star Chase Andrews (Harris Dickinson), a sweet-talking rich boy who will undoubtedly turn out to be a piece of shit. Both will fall in love, in their own ways, with Kya, “the Marsh Girl,” who looks not unlike a hippie supermodel in this movie, even though she raised herself in a swamp where soap and lipstick didn’t grow on trees. (Parts of this movie play out as some sort of weird-assed male fantasy.)
One of the boys turns up dead, and Kya is arrested as the main suspect. So, yep, a good chunk of this film is spent in a dreary courtroom, with the reliable David Strathairn going through the motions as the Deep South lawyer with a heart of gold. Eric Ladin plays the snivelly, nasty, opposing Deep South lawyer who you just know is going to show up in a film like this.
It all plays out predictably, and what is supposed to be a stirring take on survival and empowerment is reduced to a messy fairytale with a script beneath that of a subpar Law & Order episode. The film offers absolute zero in the way of surprises, depth or originality.
While I have not read the novel, I would be surprised to meet anybody who loves both the book and this movie. Actually, I’d be surprised to speak with anybody who even likes this film, period. It’s a bummer when a popular novel comes to the screen and bombs out this severely. I think a lot of folks who hold this book dear to their hearts are going to be sitting, mouth agape, with a tear in their eye—for all the wrong reasons.
I liked the atmospheric Taylor Swift song that played over the closing credits, so I guess it wasn’t a total loss.
Where the Crawdads Sing is playing at theaters across the valley.