Where the Crawdads Sing
This 2018 bestseller jumps from the page to the screen, but proves as pristine and polished as a swampy southern gothic murder-mystery melodrama can be.
July 21, 2022
Timing is everything in Where the Crawdads Sing, the murder-mystery melodrama set in America's Deep South that raced up bestseller lists in 2018, and now reaches cinemas a mere four years later. Its entire narrative hinges upon a simple question: did North Carolina outcast and recluse Kya Clark (Daisy Edgar-Jones, Fresh), cruelly nicknamed "the marsh girl" by locals, have time to speed home from an out-of-town stay to push star quarterback Chase Andrews (Harris Dickinson, The King's Man) from a fire tower, then resume her trip without anyone noticing? On the page, that query helped propel Delia Owens' literary sensation to success, to Reese Witherspoon's book club — she's a producer here — and to a swift film adaptation. But no timing would likely have ever been right for the movie's release, given that Owens and her husband are wanted for questioning in a real-life murder case in Zambia.
Unlike the film, those off-screen details aren't new, but they were always bound to attract attention again as soon as this feature arrived. One of the reasons they're inescapable: the purposeful parallels between Owens' debut novel and her existence. Like Kya, Owens is a naturalist. The also southern-born author spent years preferring the company of plants and animals, crusading for conservation causes in Africa. Where the Crawdads Sing is timed to coincide with Owens' own life as well; it's set in the 50s and 60s and, as a child (played by Jojo Regina, The Chosen) and a teenager, Kya is around the same age that Owens would've been then. Another reason that the ways that art might link with reality can't be shaken, lingering like a sultry, squelchy day: what ends up on-screen is as poised, pristine and polished as a swampy southern gothic tale can be, and anyone in one. There's still a scandal, but forget dirt, sweat and anything but lush, vivid wilderness, plus a rustic hut that wouldn't look out of place on Airbnb.
That Instagram-friendly aesthetic comes courtesy of filmmaker Olivia Newman (First Match), who helms a visually enticing movie — again, incongruously so given the story it unfurls and the location it dwells in — that's as typical as a murder-mystery meets coming-of-age tale meets southern romance can be. The film starts with Chase's body, the investigation that springs and the certainty around the insular small town of Barkley Cove that the supposedly feral and uncivilised marsh girl is responsible. Evidence is thin, but bigotry runs deep against someone who grew up with an abusive father (Garret Dillahunt, Ambulance), was left behind by her other family members and spent the bulk of her years fending for herself in poverty. That said, as in Owens' source material, that's just the framework. On the screen, though, Where the Crawdads Sing's dive into Kya's life feels like it's also been adapted from Nicholas Sparks' pages.
Most of Barkley Cove has always shunned Kya, other than generous store owners Jumpin' (Sterling Macer Jr, House of Lies) and Mabel (Michael Hyatt, The Little Things), who she sells mussels to — the feature's only Black characters, who are woefully only used to stress how callous the rest of the town proves, rather than to even dream of digging into matters of race in America's south as the civil rights movement started to gather steam. Also kindly, taking on her defence, is her Atticus Finch-esque local lawyer Tom Milton (David Strathairn, Nightmare Alley). But romance still blossoms not once but twice for Kya, first with the doting, poetry-reading Tate Walker (Taylor John Smith, Blacklight), and then with arrogant rich kid Chase. That's where Newman's film prefers to reside, charting the ups and downs of Kya's affairs of the heart. That's why the movie appears so immaculate that it shimmers with a marsh-chic gleam as well.
Smooching in the swamp replaces The Notebook-style kissing in the rain here. Skimming the surface replaces fleshing out what makes Kya tick, what her surroundings truly mean to her, and humanity's complex ties to nature. Kya is the strongest part of Where the Crawdads Sing, but the film makes everything about and around her so by the numbers. Taken from the book, sometimes-evocative turns of phrase litter Lucy Alibar's (Beasts of the Southern Wild) script, endeavouring to conjure up a rich atmosphere and bring Kya's inner feelings to life, including her love for the bayou. They're always far too neat, however, like everything within view. And as impressive as Edgar-Jones is as an actor (see also: fellow page-to-screen hit Normal People), it's impossible to reconcile Where the Crawdads Sing's careful words and dreamy vision of marsh life — such as the way its star is styled — with what the film tells rather than shows about its central character.
Kya's kinship with the wetlands is stressed over and over, of course. Where the Crawdads Sing rarely misses an opportunity to mention it. The audience is informed that it's where she feels safe and at home, and learns to be herself — and also provides the inspiration behind her career as an illustrator, cataloguing the creatures that only live in the kind of thick bushland described in the movie's title. But viewers are still stuck doing exactly what the picture rallies against in its narrative: believing their eyes and taking appearances at face value. The only alternative is sketching in minutiae and texture that just isn't in the film — that is, bringing what's present in the book to this version of the story, including what Newman and Alibar left out, then combining the two in your head. That's not how turning novels into movies should work; they're standalone pieces of art, not visual companions.
It doesn't fit the tale being told — one that includes child abandonment, sexual assault, domestic violence, and both societal and legal prejudices — but the movie's backdrop does always look stunning, as lensed with the golden glow of a tourism commercial by cinematographer Polly Morgan (A Quiet Place Part II). That's Where the Crawdads Sing, though: pretty rather than profound, meaningfully complicated or substantial. Dickinson and Smith's plights also sum up the film perfectly. While the always-welcome and ever-reliable Strathairn puts in a fine performance that's largely defined by rousing speeches, both Dickinson and Smith do exactly what's asked of them without being given much room to play anything but stock roles. That's Where the Crawdads Sing at its very best, too: always utterly standard. That said, although never visibly or emotionally, it's usually far muddier than that.