‘Where the Crawdads Sing’ Is a Dull, Boilerplate Adaptation
At first glance, the new film Where the Crawdads Sing (in theaters July 15) appears to mark the welcome return of a lost form. It’s a prestige-y but decidedly commercial film, based on a bestselling novel and aimed squarely at female audiences. We used to get a lot more theatrical-release films like this—of varying worth, sure, but at least existing in respectable abundance. This type of filmmaking has largely been punted down to streaming services in recent years, where the quality has dipped and any metric to assess a film’s popularity is gone.
Like Fried Green Tomatoes, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, and plenty other films before it, Where the Crawdads Sings is set in a clichéd, half-idealized American South, a place of ritual and legend, secrets and sweaty yearnings. The desired effect of this milieu is a mix of the homespun and the dreamy, the earthy and the almost metaphysical. Delia Owens’s novel may suitably and thoughtfully capture that heady swamp air, but Olivia Newman’s clunky and programmatic film never conjures up much of a mood.
This is the most basic kind of novel adaptation: rote and dutiful, reliant on memories of the book rather than creating a texture of its own. It is implied that characters are interesting—it’s insisted, really—but we never quite see it. They are mere functionaries walking the straight line of the plot, vessels for the story to get where it needs to go to satisfy fans of the book as they check off their lists of favorite scenes and snatches of prose.
Daisy Edgar-Jones plays Catherine “Kya” Clark, a resident of the tangle of marshes between the North Carolina mainland and its myriad barrier islands. Kya has been gradually abandoned by her entire family—abused mom and siblings, violent and drunken dad—and left to fend for herself in a ramshackle cabin. (Well, a ramshackle cabin as styled by Anthropologie.) She grows up to be resilient and reclusive, in reverent harmony with the nature surrounding her and suspicious of the nearby townsfolk who refer to her, derogatorily and rather un-creatively, as Marsh Girl.
Framing all of Kya’s growth is a murder trial: a local golden-boy football hero, Chase (Harris Dickinson), is found dead in the marshes, killed by an apparent fall from a fire tower. The locals think Kya had something to do with it, suspicious as they are of this weirdo outsider. There’s a backstory to be explained, of Chase aggressively entering Kya’s life, just as her true love, sweet and open-minded Tate (Taylor John Smith), has slipped away.
Much of Newman’s film, with a screenplay by Lucy Alibar (who attended to other bayou matters in Beasts of the Southern Wild), feels like a Nicholas Sparks movie with a murder added in for a bit of dark flavoring. The film is just as saccharine and surface-level as those goopy, ominously conservative romances, using a vibrant and complex setting as backdrop. Where the Crawdads Sing was filmed in Louisiana, with actors and crew wallowing in mud and fending off myriad pests for months. And yet it feels as hollow and digital as any modern thing shot on a green-screen soundstage, overly lit and cold to the touch.
The performances don’t warm things up. Edgar-Jones is an exciting new talent, but her aristocratic English Rose bearing is a bad fit for this material. The men around her are largely left to pout and pine, with hunky allure or hunky menace. Michael Hyatt (a long under-sung performer) and Sterling Macer, Jr. amiably play a local couple who have watched over Kya since she was a child, but their characters are never fleshed out beyond simple markers of decency. The same goes for David Strathairn as a kindly, arch Southern lawyer type who takes on Kya’s case.
A film so positioned as a paean to passion and individuality ought to have a lot more personality than Where the Crawdads Sing, especially considering its troubling origins. In the lead-up to the film’s release, stories about Owens and her family have resurfaced, harrowing accounts of their time spent in Zambia as anti-poaching activists, particularly pertaining to a murder captured on camera in a 1996 American news special. Considered through that lens, Where the Crawdads Sing takes on some sinister dimensions—it would be easier to separate the film from its source were the film a full-bodied artistic expression all its own.
Instead, Where the Crawdads Sing is a wan Cliffs Notes version of a beloved, if controversial, text. It is a film that could be said to fetishize poverty, or at least one that puts a rosy gloss on the direness of Kya’s circumstances. And anyway, we’re supposed to believe that Kya is a special kind of poor person: one worth caring about a bit more than regular folk because she’s actually a gifted observer and illustrator of nature who becomes a successful author. There’s magic surrounding Kya, the film reiterates again and again, a transcendent quality that proves her bigoted neighbors wrong. But shouldn’t they be wrong no matter what, even if Kya stayed illiterate and wasn’t revealed as an ethereal steward of her environment? What of the Kyas who don’t so readily impress polite society?
Where the Crawdads Sing might be able to tangle with those questions if Kya were a multi-dimensional character. But this film is only interested in her most rudimentary construction; she’s a blank canvas onto which a million romantic fantasies can be projected. Rather than honoring any specific place, or people, or mode of living, Where the Crawdads Sing cheaply develops its land. It’s a pre-fab oceanfront condo of a movie that prizes a pleasant view over all else.