Tuesday, July 12, 2022


 by Rob DiCristino

What? Taylor Swift wrote a song for it. I had to see it.

It’s always a special thrill when the year’s biggest novel gets adapted into a film. It’s wholesome, isn’t it? Old fashioned. Pre-internet, at least. I imagine production assistants pouring over galleys in search of the next big trend. I imagine development executives searching the Bestseller lists for their own potential Jaws, Exorcist, or Godfather. I imagine this all happening in the ‘70s, for some reason. And sure, our biggest summer blockbusters are based on comic books, but this isn’t the same thing. This is more about the fun of being ahead of the curve. Special badges of honor are awarded — usually by ourselves — to those of us who read the book before the movie is released, whose prized, dog-eared copies lack the “Soon To Be A Major Motion Picture” sticker or, god forbid, the movie’s key art on the cover. Any idea how many dates I lost by saying, “Eh, the book is a lot better”? A lot! But I digress. The point is this: As our popular monoculture continues to splinter, the fact that we can still all read one book and see it made into a film reminds us that those connections, however small, can still exist.
The latest of these is Where the Crawdads Sing, Olivia Newman’s film based on the hit Delia Owens novel of the same name. The moody mystery follows Kya Clarke (played as an adult by Daisy Edgar-Jones), a reclusive young woman living alone in the North Carolina marshes. Abandoned by her family as a child, Kya has survived by selling farmed oysters to Jumpin’ and Mabel (Sterling Mercer Jr. and Michael Hyatt, respectively), proprietors of the local general store. Having never attended school and spending very little time downtown, Kya is nicknamed “The Marsh Girl” by the locals of Barkley Cove, who share wild tales of her witchcraft and other assorted undesirable behaviors. Of her peers, only Tate Walker (Taylor John Smith) treats her with any respect, and their friendship eventually blossoms into a romance. When Tate heads to college, however, Kya takes up with the brutish Chase Andrews (Harris Dickinson). When Chase turns up dead one morning, attorney Tom Milton (David Strathairn) finds himself defending the Marsh Girl from a town that wants to see her hang for murder.

Olivia Newman’s sophomore feature effort is lush and captivating in its imagery, setting us firmly in the mid-century American South with an atmosphere that is both verdantly romantic and terrifying in its tactility. There’s a bit of Southern Gothic in the down-home charm of Barkley Cove, that mixture of folksiness and decay now common to the genre. Depending on the scene, Kya’s isolation can provoke a sense of freedom or of desperation, as does her prolific talent for sketching and documenting the wildlife around her. Daisy Edgar-Jones, earning more and more of our attention after turns in Fresh and the excellent Normal People, could have easily played Kya as a Manic Pixie Marsh Girl, but her early scenes instead emphasize a history of abuse — both the physical abuse from her alcoholic father (Garret Dillahunt) and the abandonment by her mother (Ahna O’Rilley) and several siblings — to create a hardened, protective shell. It sheds a bit as the kind-hearted Tate teaches her to read — because of course he does — but even the heights of their romance never feel as sacred or impactful to Kya as the solitude and security of the marsh.
Where the Crawdads Sing is strongest in these movements, the ones in which Kya examines the curious rhythms and symmetries of nature. Screenwriter Lucy Alibar uses whole passages from Owens’ novel as voice-over to create a thematic bridge between Kya and her environment, but these interludes start to feel less and less relevant as the sprawling, love-triangle-turned-murder-trial melodrama unravels. Tate’s midway departure opens the door for the brusque, manipulative Chase, for whom Kya seems to immediately settle despite their obvious incompatibility. It’s not that this doesn’t make sense — abused people can sometimes gravitate toward abusers — but the film never presents a strong argument for why (or even if) Kya is stuck in his thrall. Had Crawdads focused on this simple story — an isolated girl uses lessons learned from nature to escape an abusive relationship — we’d have a much more coherent and satisfying film. Instead, we’re forced to sit through an invasive murder trial subplot that interrupts the narrative flow at every conceivable turn.
Still, languorous plotting is not an unforgivable sin, especially for a film so clearly working toward a more ambient, elliptical tone. Crawdads’ more compelling performances — especially those of Edgar-Jones and Hyatt — carry the weight through enough of the smaller vignettes to satisfy audiences looking for that particular brand of beach novel histrionics, and the dramatic end reveal is just barely strong enough to overcome the clumsy storytelling that precedes it. It’s just hard to shake the feeling that Where the Crawdads Sing is skipping over chapters, that there’s a better screen adaptation somewhere in there, one that puts more emphasis on its quieter, more spiritual elements. This one needed fewer interchangeable white hunks, maybe, or a more assured sense of Kya’s perspective to better accentuate the mystery elements. Frankly, audiences deserved something worthy of the soundtrack’s “Carolina,” the stirring and mischievous Taylor Swift ballad that does more to sell the novel’s mood in four minutes than this film did in two hours.

Where the Crawdads Sing hits theaters this Friday.

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