Where the Crawdads Sing
Directed by Olivia Newman
Written by Lucy Alibar, based on the book by Delia Owens
Starring Daisy Edgar-Jones, Taylor John Smith and David Strathairn
Classification PG; 125 minutes
Opens in theatres July 15
There is a decent chance that you already know the twists and turns of Where the Crawdads Sing – that’s what happens when your movie is based on one of the best-selling books of all time, with Delia Owens’ 2018 novel sitting somewhere between Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea and Albert Camus’ The Plague. But if you are one of the few people who hasn’t already picked up Owens’s Southern-fried genre mash-up – half coming-of-age tale, half murder-mystery – then perhaps there will be just enough surprises to keep you engaged in director Olivia Newman’s adaptation. But I wouldn’t bet my first-edition Camus on it.
Lightly smooshing Owens’s multiple-timelines narrative to the screen, Newman’s film starts with a dead body, lurid accusations and a show-stopping criminal trial before backing up to offer a tender-hearted but woefully sappy story about the hardscrabble life of Kya (Daisy Edgar-Jones). After being abandoned by both her abused angel of a mother and her drunken lout of a father, Kya raises herself in the marshlands of North Carolina in the early 1950s, surviving on nothing but her wits and the kindness of two local shopkeepers, who exchange cash, clothes and books for her foraged mussels.
Cruelly nicknamed Marsh Girl by the local townsfolk, Kya eventually grows into a fully capable young woman with duelling suitors: the kind, ambitious would-be scientist Tate (Taylor John Smith) and the popular, smooth jock Chase (Harris Dickinson). When one of them ends up dead, Kya’s personal history and off-the-grid lifestyle is put on trial, with the only person in her corner being a sharp, just-retired defence attorney (David Strathairn) who senses a miscarriage of justice in the sweltering air.
Newman, a television director who is making her feature debut, gets a decent assist from the clear-eyed, no-fuss screenplay by Lucy Alibar, which condenses Owens’ timelines while attempting to keep the page-turning momentum. Yet for a whole mess of reasons, the film is neither heartbreaking nor thrilling, often feeling like a blown-up version of a Hallmark flick-of-the-week, its ambitions far greater than its capabilities.
The problems start with the central three performers, who are asked to play unbelievably, embarrassingly younger versions of themselves – if you can buy the strapping Smith as a high-schooler, I have some marshland to sell you – and are never, ever able to chew through their dialogue without coming off as completely and utterly artificial creations. Edgar-Jones, who was engagingly lovelorn in another adaptation of a bestseller (BBC’s miniseries version of Sally Rooney’s Normal People), struggles mightily as Kya, mastering neither the deep south accent nor the babe-in-the-woods shtick. And while Smith and Dickinson are certainly handsome – in that intimidating but also blandly forgettable TV movie kind of way – neither has the screen presence to sell the required romantic intensity.
Even reliable character actors like Garret Dillahunt, here for a few minutes as Kya’s comically awful father Pa, and the usually excellent Strathairn cannot make the material work. Watching the two actors wade through the molasses-thick proceedings is akin to seeing pro athletes play ball with cute, disabled kittens. It is gracious of them to show up and participate, but to what end exactly?
Newman’s film will surely move a few million more copies of Owens’s book, so watch out Hemingway. But the movie’s ultimate cultural payoff is destined to be either more people discovering the author’s scandal-plagued personal history – I won’t attempt to summarize it here, but it’s safe to say that Owens’s life is far more interesting than anything in her one and only novel – or the new Taylor Swift ballad that plays over the closing credits. Now that’s a song that even crawdads could warble and it’d be a hit.
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