We may never know the full truth behind Delia Owens’ checkered past as a conservationist — which almost certainly seem to include a militant, white savior-minded approach to policing Zambian wildlife preserves, and may also extend to being a “co-conspirator and accessory” to murder — but the secret to the “Where the Crawdads Sing” author’s success is now as obvious as her plotting, even to those of us who had never heard of the runaway bestseller until Taylor Swift invented it a few short weeks ago. Olivia Newman’s (“First Match”) slick and glossy beach read of a movie adaptation brings it all right to the surface. Which is just as well, because the surface is the only layer this movie has.
Yes, this is an expertly contrived melodrama about defiance in the face of abandonment, and sure, it’s also a faintly self-exonerating caricature of a natural woman unspoiled by Western society. But underneath the story’s humid romance with Carolina marshland, and behind its Hollywood-ready façade of backwater Americana, “Where the Crawdads Sing” is really just a swampy riff on “Pygmalion,” with Eliza Doolittle reimagined as a semi-feral outsider who’s obviously the hottest girl in town, but lives in almost complete isolation until the Zack Siler of Barkley Cove teachers her how to read and make out.
Streamlined from its source material with the help of a Lucy Aliber script that embraces the frothiness of Owens’ book while turning down the temperature of its florid, nature is my real mama narration, the film version of “Where the Crawdads Sing” is a lot more fun as a hothouse page-turner than it is as a soulful tale of feminine self-sufficiency. That it’s able to split the difference between Nicholas Sparks and “Nell” with any measure of believability is a testament to Daisy Edgar-Jones’ careful performance as Kya Clark.
The youngest daughter of an abusive drunk, and the only member of her family who stayed in their remote North Carolina house until the day Pa died sometime in the 1950s, Kya’s childhood was spent watching the people who loved her leave one-by-one (she’s played as a child by Jojo Regina). On her own from an early age, and dehumanized into folklore by the “normal” people in town — especially the kids, who label her “Marsh Girl” and laugh her right back to the swamp when she shows up at school without shoes on — Kya is forced to survive by selling mussels to the nice Black couple who run the local store (Sterling Macer, Jr. as Jumpin, and Michael Hyatt as his wife Mabel).
Some years later she’ll be hauled down to the Barkley Cove jail and forced to stand trial for the murder of a pasty cad named Chase Andrews; it’s there, at the behest of the retired lawyer (David Strathairn!) who takes her case out of the goodness of his heart, that Kya is finally compelled to share her life story for the first time, her voiceover guiding us through the past in snippets of evocatively overwrought prose that establish her connection to nature. “Marsh is a space of light,” she coos, “where grass grows in water, and water flows into the sky.” In a real time is a flat circle kind of twist, it often feels like Kya taught herself to write by reading all the other novels that have been canonized by Reese Witherspoon’s book club.
Of course, self-reliant and capable as Kya is, we soon learn that she learned her letters with the help of the square-jawed soft boy who grew up down the creek. The Dawson Leery to Kya’s Joey Potter, Tate Walker (Taylor John Smith) is a kind-hearted soul who lost some family of his own, which might explain why he always remembered the orphaned girl who everyone else in Barkley Cove was eager to forget. In the summer before college, Tate starts leaving Kya supplies on a tree stump — as if he were filling a food trap for a wild animal — only to discover that the Marsh Girl has matured into a movie star. It’s a genuine credit to Newman’s handle on her film’s silly-serious tone that she allows Kya, who doesn’t have electricity or running water, to look like she’s blown all of her mussel money on Pantene Pro-V. Anyway, kissing ensues. Sometimes amid a slow-motion vortex of leaves.
“Where the Crawdads Sing”
Michele K Short
But if Tate thinks the Marsh Girl will always be waiting for him (a girl can only go so far without shoes), he’s in for a rude awakening; once the word gets out that Kya is a total catch, she becomes an irresistible fetish object for the kind of fella who might have less honorable intentions. Enter our corpse-in-waiting, Mr. Chase Andrews. Played by a slithering but somewhat vulnerable Harris Dickinson, who looks so much like Taylor John Smith that his dark-haired character might as well be the blond Tate’s evil twin, Chase loves Kya like a backhanded compliment, and talks down to her even when he’s trying to get her top off. We know he won’t be around for long, but did he fall from that rickety fire tower, or was he pushed? Surely a girl like Kya, so desperate for someone who might not abandon her, wouldn’t kill the one person who hadn’t yet?
That framing device of a question looms in the background of a movie that is far less interested in how Chase dies than it is by how Kya is persecuted for it — by how the Marsh Girl has remained innocent despite a lifetime of prejudice. Shy without being sneaky, naive without seeming childlike, and in tune with nature without going full “raised by wolves” (though the jailhouse cat’s instant affinity for her is a little much), Edgar-Jones’ wide-eyed performance completely sells us on Kya’s reality as a survivor. Her soft voice and defensive posture lend the character a lilting interiority that holds this movie together across multiple timelines.
“Where the Crawdads Sing”
Michele K. Short
It’s a doubly impressive feat in an adaptation that’s often edited to feel like a two-hour montage, a nagging issue that leaves “Crawdads” a little off-key from its slippery first half to its inelegant coda (though only one early scene of young Kya and Tate yapping at each other from separate boats truly borders on “Bohemian Rhapsody” territory). It’s just a shame the story’s ultra-predictable ending is presented in a way that denies us the full potential of Edgar-Jones’ performance, as Newman opts for hair-raising inference over primal satisfaction.
To that same point, “Where the Crawdads Sing” works best when it embraces its own true nature as a popcorn movie. Newman seems to recognize that “and David Strathairn” are the three most beautiful words that can ever appear in the opening credits of a studio film, and she gives the actor the space he needs to stalk across a sweaty courtroom in a white suit and make us gasp along with the small crowd of people who’ve gathered to witness Kya’s trial. Dickinson textures Chase as well as the script will allow, but delights in the character’s inherent punchability so that the film’s central love triangle never loses it shape. If Jumpin and Mabel still betray the career-long criticism that Owens tends to infantilize her Black characters, Macer and Hyatt ground their roles in a quiet dignity that pushes back against how they may have been written on the page.
As a movie, “Where the Crawdads Sing” never seems worthy of the hullabaloo that continues to surround the book, but — much like its heroine — Newman’s adaptation finds just enough ways to endure.
Sony Pictures will release “Where the Crawdads Sing” in theaters on Friday, July 15.
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