Where the Crawdads Sing is the inevitable feature film adaptation of Delia Owens’ best-selling 2018 novel of the same name. Directed by Olivia Newman (First Match) and adapted by Lucy Alibar (the FAR superior Troop Zero), Crawdads is a product of Reese Witherspoon’s book club/production company, Hello Sunshine, and stars Daisy Edgar-Jones, one of the breakout stars of Normal People, as Catherine Danielle Clark, known as Kya. This is a bafflingly inert performance from Edgar-Jones, her performance is as sucked dry of her natural charisma as a crawdad is of its innards at a fish boil. If you’d like to see Edgar-Jones give a fierce yet vulnerable performance as a woman jeopardized by her place in a closed community’s social hierarchy, please watch Under the Banner of Heaven. She is mesmerizing in that. Here, she is trying but is treading water, at best.
Kya grows up more or less feral in the marsh, the creatively bankrupt locals in her small-minded town call her “Marsh girl”, and only four people are ever nice to her. In a truly stupefying move, the film makes no effort to update or in any way deepen the depiction of “Jumpin’” (Sterling Macer, Jr.) and his wife, Mabel (Michael Hyatt), the Black couple who run the gas station along the waterways. They are the only speaking Black roles in the film and they are stereotypical depictions of Black people who are nice to the central white girl to show that she’s “one of the good ones”. There is surely a point to be made about the intersection of race and class and how poor white America and Black America related in the segregation era, but Crawdads does not want to make that point. Crawdads wants to be a saccharine romance with a lil’ murder subplot and Jumpin’ and Mabel exist solely to make “MMHMM” faces at one another whenever the white folks turn their backs. It is the year twenty-thousand and twenty-two.
Kya ends up accused of murder when her illicit paramour, obviously violent townie Chase Andrews (Harris Dickinson, observe him in the sublime Beach Rats), turns up dead in the marsh. The police accuse Kya after overhearing gossip at a bar, and local lawyer Tom Milton (David Straitharn), one of the four people to be nice to her, takes up Kya’s case. Now, everyone knows not to trust your soul to no backwoods Southern lawyer, and Kya is no different, refusing to help Tom build her defense. She won’t take a plea, so Tom has to try and poke holes in the prosecution’s admittedly thin case with things like pointing out Kya’s incredible alibi of being in another city at the time of the murder.
Crawdads might have been able to build some momentum as a courtroom drama, but it keeps intercutting with a Nicholas Sparksian romance between Kya and local boy Tate (Taylor John Smith, Sharp Objects, literally everyone in this film has been better in other things, which is how you know the material is weak, and not the actors). They were childhood sweethearts in the marsh, he left her behind when he went to college, and then murder intervened, AS IT DOES. I am no fan of the novel, but I will allow that Delia Owens does a much better job building ambiguity and doubt into the murder mystery, providing multiple suspects, including Kya, and conflicting witness statements that muddy the waters of who was seen where, and when (fun fact: Delia Owens and her family are wanted for questioning in the murder case of an alleged poacher in Zambia!).
The film strips all of this out and presents a much less complicated case, which is a bummer. The romance is a dud, no one in this film has chemistry with anyone else, love scenes are like watching wet noodles fall on a floor. Crawdads could make up for its deficient romance storyline if the murder case was compelling, but it’s not because all that ambiguity from the novel is gone. As a result, Crawdads plays like a fancy Hallmark movie, designed to be banal and unchallenging, to the point that it walks into ugly racial stereotypes without a second thought. Crawdads is a mediocre book, and unless you’re willing to take big swings away from the source material, mediocre books will always yield mediocre movies, and this is the most mediocre of movies. Where the Crawdads Sing has all the charm of a wine mom novelty sign.
Attached - Daisy Edgar-Jones making the promotional rounds this week in New York.