Review: WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING, Overly Faithful, Reverent Adaptation Never Quite Soars

Daisy Edgar-Jones stars in an adaptation of a popular mystery novel, opening in movie theaters this week.

Lead Critic; San Francisco, California
Review: WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING, Overly Faithful, Reverent Adaptation Never Quite Soars

It’s rare for a first-time novelist to score an immediate bestseller. It’s even more rare when that same first-time novelist outpaces comparable writers in terms of sales. And it’s all the rarer when a publisher takes a chance on a first-time novelist in their late sixties.

It helped that Delia Owens, a writer whose first novel, Where the Crawdads Sing, broke publishing records, had already published a well-received, if controversial, 1986 memoir, Cry of the Kalahari. Owens’ memoir covered her life as a naturalist, zoologist, and elephant-centered conservationist with her then husband, Mark, in Africa during the 1970s. The still unresolved death of an alleged poacher in 1996 at a Zambian nature preserve while Delia, Mark, and her stepson were present, however, led to their eventual expulsion and permanent persona non grata status.

Competently, if often too reverently directed by Olivia Newman (First Match), Where the Crawdads Sing opens with the possibly accidental, possibly intentional death of Chase Andrews (Harris Dickinson, Beach Rats), the onetime favored son and ex-high school athlete of Barkley Cove, North Carolina, in 1969 from a literal great height, an abandoned, rusty fire tower. Almost immediately, suspicion falls on Kya Clark (Daisy Edgar-Jones, Under the Banner of Heaven, Fresh, Normal People), a twenty-something outcast who’s lived her entire life, most of it alone, in the bordering marshland. Abandoned successively by her mother, siblings, and eventually abusive, alcoholic father, Kya has become mythologized by the small-minded, bigoted, classist locals as the “Marsh Girl.”

In lyrical, poetic, sometimes redundant voiceover, Kya recounts her life story, from the unwashed, practically feral preteen girl (Jojo Regina), who learns to fend for herself without any help from the nearby community of Barkley Cove, with the exception of a kindly, generous African-American couple, Jumpin' (Sterling Macer Jr.) and Mabel (Michael Hyatt), who own a waterside shop. Kya not only finds the occasional kind word from Jumpin’ and Mabel, but also barters mussels she gathers from the local marshland for the supplies she needs, including clothes, to survive on her own in the house left to her by default.

On its own, the central premise practically begs credulity, stretching logic well past the breaking point, and all but demanding audience goers simply suspend any questions about Kya’s survival out the proverbial window. (That general objection, however, obviously didn't negatively impact the novel's commercial success.)

Closely following the source material, Kya not only survives in the marsh, she positively thrives in it, inheriting her mother’s artistic impulse, and learning to draw and color on her own. Kya naturally focuses on the unique wildlife that surrounds her on a daily basis, but without any kind of education, Kya seems doomed to a lifetime of poverty and isolation.

That is until, of course, the first of two men enter Kya’s life, first Tate Walker (Taylor John Smith), a local and former friend of Kya’s older brother, Jodie, and later the aforementioned Chase Andrews (Harris Dickinson). From Tate, Kya learns how to read and write.

Eventually, she also learns the highs and lows of first love as Tate, pulled by the possibilities inherent in the outside world, leaves Kya behind for university life. (To be fair, Tate tries to convince Kya to leave the marsh, but she refuses.) With her heart broken, Kya accepts Chase’s openly romantic attentions on the rebound, eventually learning that men can be as self-interested and predatory as the wildlife she’s devoted her life to studying up close and personal.

Where the Crawdads Sings leaps and shifts, sometimes clumsily, sometimes awkwardly, from Chase’s ignominious death, Kya’s subsequent arrest, detention, and trial, and a travelogue of sorts across Kya’s life from the 1950s through the 1960s and in an extended epilogue, well beyond. As in Owens’ novel, Kya’s lawyer, Tom Milton (David Strathairn), turns her prosecution into an indictment of the town’s decades-long mistreatment and ostracism of Kya, though the trial itself, filled with revelations meant to shock or surprise the audiences on both sides of the screen, tend toward the non-shocking and the non-surprising, rushed through with a minimum of thoughtfulness to get to the next expository flashback.

Pace Owens, Newman repeatedly underlines the lack of physical evidence against Kya and the town’s collectively willingness to convict Kya due to her outsider status and Chase’s insider one. Between Kya’s unwilling membership in Barkley Cove’s lowest possible class (i.e.. not dirt-poor, but marsh-poor) and her gender, given the less enlightened era of 1950s and 1960s North Carolina, the odds seem stacked against the preternaturally brilliant, sensitive Kya. Not even her artistic talent or what it could bring the town in terms of tourism and cash are enough to reverse the town’s inflexible perception of Kya as somehow less than.

The only two non-white characters, Jumpin’ and Mabel, exist primarily to serve Kya’s story. They might see some affinity in Kya’s position and theirs. They might sympathize and empathize with Kya’s precarious outsider status, but ultimately, they remain one-dimensional cut-outs, brought to life less by Newman and screenwriter Lucy Alibar’s (Beasts of the Southern Wild) lackluster efforts than Sterling Macer Jr. and Michael Hyatt’s individual and collective performances, respectively.

The turbulence of the Civil Rights Era is nowhere to be found in Barkley Cove or in Kya's story. When it’s acknowledged at all, racism takes the form of the occasional insult or putdown, usually by Chase and his willfully ignorant, privileged friends.

Ultimately, of course, Where the Crawdads Sing remains Kya’s story of growth, adaptation, and eventually, acceptance. It's a story structured to hit the novel’s major dramatic and emotional beats, but all too often at the cost of subtlety or nuance.

Where the Crawdads Sing feels like there’s both too much story and not enough story to keep audiences fully engaged, suggesting perhaps that an adaptation of Owens novel would have been better suited to a streaming series than a theatrical release and a limited running time.

Where the Crawdads Sings opens in movie theaters in wide release on Friday, July 15.

Where the Crawdads Sing

  • Olivia Newman
  • Lucy Alibar
  • Delia Owens
  • Daisy Edgar-Jones
  • Joe Chrest
  • Garret Dillahunt
Screen Anarchy logo
Do you feel this content is inappropriate or infringes upon your rights? Click here to report it, or see our DMCA policy.
Daisy Edgar-JonesDelia OwensHarris DickinsonLucy AlibarOlivia NewmanTaylor John SmithWhere the Crawdads SingJoe ChrestGarret DillahuntDramaMysteryThriller

Around the Internet