WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING (2022), the big screen adaptation of the immensely popular novel of the same name by Delia Owens, probably will not satisfy fans of the novel since its screenplay by Lucy Alibar is superficial at best, but it still manages to tell a compelling narrative in spite of a pace better suited for a sultry summer North Carolina afternoon.
It also features a terrific performance by Daisy Edgar-Jones in the lead role.
WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING opens in 1969 North Carolina where a young woman Kya Clark (Daisy Edgar-Jones) is accused of murdering the man she was seeing, the former high school star quarterback Chase Andrews (Harris Dickinson). Kya is known in town as the Marsh Girl, because she has lived her whole life alone in a house on the marshes. The townsfolk think she’s weird, and rumors about her have run rampant. The bottom line, however, is that few in town have ever given her the time of day.
When the gentle kindly attorney Tom Milton (David Strathairn) steps up to defend Kya, she tells him her story, which we learn in flashbacks, and the movie plays out in this way, jumping back and forth between Kya’s past and her present trial for murder. We learn that Kya grew up in the swamps with her abusive father (Garret Dillahunt) after her mother and older sisters and brother fled the home. Kya remained, and when eventually her father leaves as well, she takes to surviving on her own.
Her only friends in town are the black owners of the local store, Jumpin’ (Sterling Macer, Jr.) and Mabel (Michael Hyatt), and a boy her own age named Tate. As the years go by and Kya and Tate (Taylor John Smith) grow up, they fall in love and become best friends until Tate has to leave for college, but he promises he will come back to see Kya, but he never does, tearing a new hole in Kya’s heart. She then meets Chase, whose attempts to date her she rebuffs, but he’s persistent, and eventually she gives in and starts to see him, not knowing that he is being less than honest with her about his intentions.
And that’s the story told in WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING, with the climax being will Kya be found innocent or guilty, and what will then happen to the mysterious young woman known as the Marsh Girl?
I didn’t really have high expectations for WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING, so maybe that’s why I kinda enjoyed it.
The best part by far is the lead performance by Daisy Edgar Jones. She captures the innocence and wildness of Kya while giving her both the toughness and intellectual curiosity needed to nail the role. She’s in nearly the entire movie, and she’s good enough to carry this film on her shoulders.
Jones receives fine support from veteran actor David Strathairn as sympathetic and very astute attorney Tom Milton. He makes Milton a very likeable character, and an attorney who would have been right at home in an old episode of LAW AND ORDER. Strathairn has been in a ton of movies over the years, going way, way back to films like THE RIVER WILD (1994), and we saw him last year in NIGHTMARE ALLEY (2021). He also has been stuck playing a boring military character, Admiral William Stenz in the meh Godzilla reboots, GODZILLA (2014) and GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS (2019).
I also really enjoyed Sterling Macer, Jr. and Michael Hyatt as the shop owners who in their own way become surrogate parents for Kya, always looking after her and caring for her. They show their frustration with their own situation, being black in rural North Carolina in the 1960s, knowing that they were limited in how they could help Kya, and understanding that it would have been best for them not to be involved with her at all.
Both Taylor John Smith as Tate and Harris Dickinson as Chase are okay. They’re not terribly exciting or interesting and are about as intriguing as a slice of white bread, but maybe that’s the point. Taylor John Smith reminded me a little bit of a young Paul Rudd.
The screenplay by Lucy Alibar as I said is a bit superficial and really plays out like someone trying to summarize a longer and deeper novel. Lots of points are made, none of them all that deeply, but that being said, Alibar does succeed in fleshing out Kya’s character at least, and combined with the wonderful acting of Daisy Edgar-Jones creates a memorable character. The dialogue is also decent. The trial scenes aren’t that exciting, however, and seem like they belong in an old TV movie.
Director Olivia Newman captures the North Carolina scenery and gives this film a lazy, hot humid summer feel. Unfortunately, that also goes for the pacing as well, which is slow and lethargic. The film is two hours and five minutes, and at times feels longer. It really isn’t much of a thriller, and the emphasis here is instead on romance. That being said, while the weather may be steamy, the romances are not. This is definitely a PG-13 love story, not an R rated one, and the film suffers for it, because it comes off like an adult tale tailored for younger audiences.
Newman does create some memorable scenes, however. Some of the best sequences involve Kya’s interactions with Jumpin’ and Mabel, with one of the best late in the film when a bruised and battered Kya visits an emotional Jumpin’ who tells her how much he and Mabel truly care for her.
Taken as a whole, WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING is a satisfying and generally moving drama about a young woman who lived an extraordinary life alone in the swamps of North Carolina, and who had to fend for herself to survive both the hardships of nature and the ways of men. Accused of murder, her life becomes front and center for all in town to see, and the story becomes less about her innocence or guilt, and more about who she is and why she has to do what she does.
In the hazy lazy days of summer, watching WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING in an air-conditioned theater might be just the ticket to pass a sweltering afternoon.