“Where the Crawdads Sing” is being pushed as one of those literary adaptations that kicks off a whole litany of adaptations. We had magic and fantasy with “Harry Potter,” supernatural romances with “Twilight,” dystopian ordeals with “The Hunger Games,” and that weird trend of relationships complicated by increasingly rare diseases with “The Fault in Our Stars.” I think this one is supposed to kick off a trend of adaptations of books about recluses. Or maybe about the South. Or murders and trials. Judging by this movie’s unimpressive critical reception and third-place box office finish in its opening weekend, I highly doubt that it’s going to be the start of any such movement.
The movie opens with the discovery of a dead body in rural North Carolina – that of local (figurative) ladykiller Chase (Harris Dickenson). The police are baffled as to how he wound up dead, but suspect foul play, specifically by ex-girlfriend Kya (Daisy Edgar-Jones). They come to Kya’s marshland shack to question her, and she flees, making her look even more suspicious. Kya is arrested and defended in court by angelic lawyer Tom Milton (David Strathairn, his Atticus-Finch-O-Meter turned up to 10). Milton makes mincemeat out of the incompetent prosecution’s case, but there’s still the matter of getting the jury on Kya’s side. Kya is something of a pariah in the community for her poverty and reclusiveness, and the jury is bound to be prejudiced against her. Frankly I found it a stretch that the pretty white woman was in too much danger from prejudice, but the movie insists that the town is ready to execute her because she lives off the beaten path.
We follow Kya’s tragic life story through extensive flashbacks. Her abusive, alcoholic father (Garrett Dillahunt) drove away the rest of her family until one day he too disappeared. She had to learn to fend for herself from an early age, as she wasn’t welcome at the local school and didn’t want to live in a group home. But there were a few well-wishers like Milton, the couple that ran the general store (Sterling Mercer Jr. and Michael Hyatt), and the studious Tate (Taylor John Smith). Kya and Tate enter into a relationship, but he breaks her heart. As a rebound, she begins seeing eventual corpse Chase, who starts off pushy and mildly unlikeable and eventually becomes dangerous and deserving of his fate. These scenes are intercut with the trial, where it’s a wonder the jury doesn’t sympathize with Kya from day one.
At the center of the film is Daisy Edgar-Jones’ star-making performance, and it’s a good one. I can’t say the movie does a great job of making her look like someone that has been beaten down by elements her whole life (similar to how I thought Ansel Elgort was too good-looking for his role in “West Side Story”), but everything she contributes to the performance, she nails. This movie isn’t quite good enough to shoot her to the top of Hollywood right away, but it’ll be enough to get her more leading roles that will get her to the top.
Despite the strengths of Edgar-Jones, “Where the Crawdads Sing” is otherwise a mess. The balance of flashbacks and trial scenes is all out of whack, it’s hard to tell how much time is passing between flashbacks, and the whole thing is just too sappy for its own good, save for some horrific scenes of abuse. I’m not particularly happy that I had to see this movie, and I’m certainly not eager to see more like it. Going by its box office performance, neither is anyone else.
“Where the Crawdads Sing” is rated PG-13 for sexual content and violence including a sexual assault. Its running time is 125 minutes.
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Robert R. Garver is a graduate of the Cinema Studies program at New York University. His weekly movie reviews have been published since 2006.