Where the Crawdads Sing

Young Kya Clark (Jojo Regina) watches in dismay as her beloved Ma (Ahna O'Reilly, "Fruitvale Station") walks out of the marsh carrying a suitcase after her most recent beating by Kya’s abusive, alcoholic Pa (Garret Dillahunt, TV's 'Raising Hope').  The young girl will gradually be abandoned by her older siblings and even her father, yet she survives, even flourishes amidst the natural beauty she calls home.  But when the popular former quarterback Chase Andrews (Harris Dickinson, "Beach Rats") is found dead, the people of Barkley Cove, North Carolina all turn toward the strange marsh girl as the likeliest suspect in “Where the Crawdads Sing.”

Laura's Review: C+

Note: those who have not read the book may find implied spoilers below:

Those who are fans of Delia Owens' best seller, whose profile was raised by executive producer Reece Witherspoon’s book club,  are likely to be pleased by this slavishly faithful adaptation from "Beasts of the Southern Wild’s" Lucy Alibar.  But while the film, directed by Olivia Newman, has several laudable elements, those who had some believability issues with the source material, as I did, will find the same issues here, beginning with a clutch of siblings thinking they can make their own way in the outside world while abandoning a six year-old.

Then there are the two male romantic rivals, both of whom make choices which are grossly out of character from how they’ve been established.  Even if we know societal pressure will conquer Andrews, he clearly has strong emotions for the woman who lets him be himself, his subsequent actions rendering him Jekyll and Hyde.  These decisions might move the plot forward, but there are too many whiffs of Nicolas Sparks here, something which seeps into the film with its beautiful but derivative scenes of rowboats and hundreds of white birds a la “The Notebook.”

Owens’ novel had autobiographical elements, notably her childhood spent exploring the woods absorbing nature, a pastime that led her to become a wildlife scientist.  Kya (Daisy Edgar-Jones, "Fresh") has a more organic, less formally academic route to becoming an illustrator of local flora, fauna and seashells and, recognizing her innate talent, her childhood friend Tate Walker (Luke David Blumm, "The King of Staten Island," as a child; Taylor John Smith, "Shadow in the Cloud," as an adult) encourages her to seek a publisher, something she pursues eventually that provides her financial independence.  Watching this character flourish doing something she loves is one of the more satisfying aspects of Kya’s story, as is the way Edgar-Jones and Blumm fall into a respectful romantic relationship after leaving little gifts for each other in a tree stump they knew as children.

Also rewarding is Kya’s relationship with black bait-and-tackle shop owners Jumpin (Sterling Macer Jr.) and Mabel (Michael Hyatt, TV's 'Snowfall') who cautiously support the orphaned white youngster, sidetracking the social worker seeking to institutionalize her.  Gentlemanly lawyer Tom Milton (David Strathairn, "Nomadland") is kind to the outcast as a girl and steps in like Atticus Finch to defend the young woman from an entire town’s prejudice - except his carefully reasoned defense is jettisoned for a literary trick which may be satisfying the moment the rug is pulled out from under, but doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.

Newman and Alibar go the flashback route, structuring the film around the present day trial, a mystery to be solved.  Newman’s style is slightly stodgy, but she’s elicited solid performances from her ensemble which reflect the characters we’ve imagined, especially the British Edgar-Jones who one would be hard pressed not to believe as a somewhat feral South Carolinian.  The film also features strong work from production designer Sue Chan and art director Kirby Feagan who’ve brought Owens’ pages to vivid life.  Kya’s home subtly changes throughout the film, reflecting her own maturation and surrounding locations are picture perfect.  Taylor Swift's original song 'Carolina' evokes the mood of the film beautifully. 

“Where the Crawdads Sing” is a lovely showcase for Edgar-Jones, especially as she reflects the source material’s author, but it is a tapestry of uneven thread strength which is unfortunate as it fills an adult mid-level movie-going niche too often ignored.           

Robin's Review: C+

Sony Pictures opens "Where the Crawdads Sing" in theaters on 7/15/22.