For those unfamiliar with Delia Owens’ bestseller Where the Crawdads Sing, this stunningly poor cinematic adaptation plays out as if Nicholas Sparks had rewritten To Kill a Mockingbird, removing all racial elements.
The film is directed so soberly that one might think it was made by Ron Howard. Blame it on Olivia Newman, who has no sense of pace. The editing is clunky as the story jumps around in time. The performances are painfully serious. The story involves a murder, but the courtroom scenes that follow are without tension. The love triangle that develops has no passion. And the crayfish don’t sing, but Taylor Swift does.
The film is set in (fictional) Barkley Cove, NC, in 1969. Kya (Daisy Edgar-Jones) explains, “The swamp isn’t a swamp” and “The swamp knows all about death.” She is “The Marsh Girl.” , a young woman abandoned by her family; Her father (Garrett Dillahunt) was abusive and drove away her mother and siblings before leaving himself. Kya is a teenager who lives alone in the swamp and mainly draws seashells, insects and other nature pictures.
The film begins with some children finding the body of Chase Andrews (Harris Dickinson). Barely introduced, Kya is suspected (and presumably guilty) of his murder because she’s the local misfit. Luckily, Kya gets the sympathy of Tom Milton (David Strathairn), a lawyer coming out of retirement to defend her. Strathairn plays Tom less like a stoic Atticus Finch and more like a stammering Jimmy Stewart. His “Oh, Shucks” quality is oddly annoying. Tom claims he wants to “get to know” Kya so he can keep her off death row, and so the film tells her story.
“Where the Crawdads Sing” jumps back to 1953 with Kya as a child (Jojo Regina) who is neglected and abused and teased as she goes to school barefoot and unkempt and can’t spell “dog.” She gets some kindness from black couple Jumpin (Sterling Macer Jr.) and Mabel (Michael Hyatt), who run a local business. They give her shoes, encourage her to get an education, and generally take care of her. At one point, Social Services asks Jumpin about Kya, but that storyline is dropped, never to be picked up again. It’s uncanny that Jumpin and Mabel don’t age during the film’s prime period, 1953-1969, nor do they seem to face racism despite being the only black people in the film.
The film haphazardly jumps back and forth to the courtroom (some viewers may suffer whiplash) where Kya is on trial. Testimonies and evidence are presented against “The Marsh Girl”, such as red threads that could be a red herring, but Tom Milton slyly refutes it all.
The main narrative focuses on Kya’s love for Tate (Taylor John Smith), who brings her quills and teaches her to read. Their budding relationship is portrayed in a glassy-eyed montage. As Tate discusses a tragedy in his past, leaves begin to whirl in the wind and the couple share a big, romantic kiss. It’s obvious that director Olivia Newman wants this to be the love-kissing-in-the-rain passed out scene from The Notebook. Instead, viewers can fall in fits of unintentional hysteria.
And although Tate is gentleman enough – he cares too much about Kya to have sex with her – he breaks her heart when he leaves to go to college. Even more damaging is that he breaks his promise to see her again on July 4th. Kya, who donned lipstick and a chic dress for Tate’s return, is distraught in a way not seen since the original Stella Dallas. And as if desperation weren’t obvious enough, Kya expresses her disappointment at seeing her “heartbreak” seep away like water and sand. Cut to an image of water and sand as if Newton weren’t sure the audience would understand the metaphor.
Kya (Daisy Edgar Jones) in “Where the Crawdads Sing” (Sony Pictures)
“Where the Crawdads Sing” often feeds viewers everything they need to know, with oh-so-tender voiceovers, dialogue, and imagery that simply overstates the obvious. For the many viewers who have read the book, there are no real narrative surprises (including the big “gotcha” twist). But surely the story could be told in a way – say linearly – that would add some much-needed dramatic impact to this overheated melodrama. Newman’s direction is so sluggish that the film never finds its rhythm.
When Chase comes into the picture, he begins courting Kya for reasons initially unclear to her. (Spoilers: He’s just horny.) Chase fills in Tate’s absence in Kya’s lonely, isolated, abandoned, remote and reclusive life. But his character is too unformed to garner much interest — until he starts abusing Kya. Of course, someone overhears her threatening to kill Chase in one scene, and that fact is presented in the courtroom as damning evidence that she is guilty of murder. Cue gasps from the peanut gallery.
It’s a shame the film takes so much of the book into two hours. It could have been better developed as a miniseries where it could explore or at least develop its ideas and characters. The film only scratches the surface of the critical issues raised, such as domestic and sexual abuse of women. Kya is nearly raped in one scene and refuses to speak to authorities about it, believing her claim will not be believed or supported. The last 10 minutes of “Where the Crawdads Sing” spans so much time, so fast, it’s dizzying. But Mabel is finally aging!
Newton’s focus on the murder case and Kya’s two romances dilute what is arguably the more interesting story of a young, independent woman who receives an education and lives her own life.
The performances are also distracting. Daisy Edgar-Jones seems to be completely miscast here. As a “wild” young woman who everyone thinks is “junk”, she is absolutely unconvincing. Her wide eyes convey disbelief at every opportunity and it just seems to be her standard expression. When young Kya looks back at Mabel through the window in the shop door, having just been treated kindly, this is the only poignant moment of the film. When adult Kya glares at Tate or Chase, she feels empty.
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Additionally, Edgar-Jones has little to no chemistry with any of her male co-stars. Both Taylor John Smith and Harris Dickinson may look like they stepped out of the pages of an Abercrombie and Fitch catalog – Kya apparently has a type – but both actors give lazy performances. That’s forgivable with Smith playing the really nice guy, but Dickinson, normally magnetic on screen, oddly lacks charisma here, which is fatal.
Strathairn and Dillahunt border on landscape chewing, but Newton may not give them credit for underplaying. Sterling Macer Jr. and Michael Hyatt play virtuous as Jumpin and Mabel.
“Where the Crawdads Sing” is a disappointing adaptation. It is very similar to a swamp: lukewarm and motionless.
Where the Crawdads Sing hits theaters on July 15. Watch a trailer on YouTube.
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https://www.salon.com/2022/07/15/where-the-crawdads-sing-review/ “Where the Crawdads Sing” is a stupefyingly bad adaptation of spoon-fed melodrama