With over 12 million copies sold, Where The Crawdads Sing is considered one of the best-selling novels of all time, written by a naturalist who is wanted for questioning in Zambia for her connection to the murder of an elephant poacher. One of the breakout titles of Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine Book Club, Where The Crawdads Sing is a borderline racist mid-twentieth century adventure that can be read in the space of one day. As a film it’s come out as more Nicholas Sparks than its own movie, and cut-rate Nicholas Sparks at that, no matter how good the cast or scenery may be.
In 1969, local pariah Kya “The Marsh Girl” Clark (Daisy Edgar-Jones, TV’s Under the Banner of Heaven) is arrested for the murder of the local star quarterback (Harris Dickinson, The King’s Man) in the North Carolinian town of Barkley Cove. Prodded by her defence attorney (David Strathairn, Nightmare Alley), Kya tells of her isolated life out in the marshes, spurned by society with the exception of biologist Tate (Taylor John Smith, Backlight) and kindly store owners Jumpin’ (Sterling Macer Jr., Double Down) and Mabel (Michael Hyatt, TV’s Snowfall).
Where the Crawdads Sing is doomed almost from the start, with its thoroughly unnecessary framing device. “I had a family, once,” Kya begins. “They used to call me Kya.” Everything that comes after is tinged with this embarrassing folksiness that never once flirts with sincerity or earnestness. The film’s reliance on Edgar-Jones’ narration is such that it has a breaking point: surely it’s not in the client’s best interests to disclose all of this information to her legal representative?
For a film that is part courtroom drama, any time that the legal process looms Where the Crawdads Sing grinds to a halt. The crime as it is described is nebulous at best, and for such a literal film it takes no advantage of the opportunities to recreate hypothetical crimes that the visual format would allow. Lucy Alibar (Troop Zero) provides a shorthand of the defence and the most circumstantial basis for pressing charges in the first place. It’s not for no reason that the criminal trial is just something that happens in the book – a third act development to bring the reader to the book’s conclusion – so structuring the entire film around it is a misstep that permeates Where the Crawdads Sing to its core and allows no room to breathe.
The one area that Where the Crawdads Sing overcomes its material is in the presentation of Jumpin’ and Mabel who on the page read as two of the most retrograde servile African-American caricatures in recent literature. Here they show some agency and speak sentences that aren’t pure phonetic invention, but they only exist to boost Kya, an indelicate trade off that is unfortunate rather than unforgivable. Another casualty in the transition from page to screen is the frequent show stopping poetry, but it’s not exactly politic to say something is good by virtue of its exceptions instead of its inclusions — it only ever means that Where the Crawdads Sing isn’t as bad as it could have been.
Director Olivia Newman (TV’s FBI) corrals her cast across a series of beautifully humid vistas, but steadfastly refuses to bring any of it to life. A huge issue with the ensemble is that Dickinson and Smith look too similar to be in any sort of love triangle without potentially confusing the audience; neither gives a bad performance — everyone is decently cast in this picture — but they’re barely different enough to read well on film. Strathairn does what he can as the down-home country fried lawyer but the role comes across as play acting. It’s a movie of surfaces, never interested in looking deeper into any of its characters. This is particularly ironic given that the muddied moral is that books should not be judged by their covers, but Edgar-Jones and the ensemble can’t bring anything more to their parts than is written. It’s the sort of film where you can say that everyone acquits themselves well, but it’s uncertain to what end.
Where the Crawdads Sing was prime book club material, and that’s what will ultimately boost the film to a baseline of success. The movie has the names and the pedigree, but there’s no spell or mystique to it at all. The desperate need to adhere to a non-linear criminal framing when simple chronology would have done — like Alibar and Newman have never heard of a three act structure — hamstrings what could have been a simple story that opened up and revealed itself even if it was incapable of surprising the audience. What you get instead is a whirlwind tour of fifty year old class-based prejudice that telegraphs every punch, wrapped up with an original Taylor Swift song. Where the Crawdads Sing is never enough, even if the meta story of Owens’ crimes — and this apparent confession — is fascinating.
Where the Crawdads Sing opened in Australian cinemas on July 21, 2022.
Directed by: Olivia Newman.
Starring: Daisy Edgar-Jones, Taylor John Smith, Harris Dickinson, Michael Hyatt, Sterling Macer Jr. and David Strathairn.