Whatever the virtues of the popular Delia Owens novel it’s based on, the film adaptation of “Where the Crawdads Sing” makes it “a beach book,” a simple, pulpy page-turner to take on vacation with you and nothing more.
A clumsily-plotted murder mystery tucked into a geographically-inept/historically-dubious period piece wrapped up in a “surviving abuse” bow, it’s so corny, slow and dull that one barely notices how colorless and uninteresting the cast is.
Set in a sort of “Sleepy Time Down South” North Carolina that would make Andy Griffith’s teeth ache, with an illiterate and never-tanned or dirty character who raises herself without adults, electricity or running water and yet somehow starts each day in the mucky, muddy swamps and marshes looking like she just got out of the production’s hair and makeup trailer, it’s a drama overwhelmed by the ways it gives anybody with a low tolerance for romance novels or Hallmark movies to mentally check out.
English rose Daisy Edgar-Jones of TV’s “War of the Worlds” stars as Kya, “the Marsh Girl,” shunned by sleepy Barkley Cove, N.C., a Low Country backwater that cruelly nicknamed this abandoned child who raised herself from the age of 10 onward as “the Missing Link.”
She’s 24 in 1969, the fictive present. Kya is a solitary swamp creature who collects feathers, nests and shells, sketches the flora and fauna around her and stands accused of murder after the hunky one-time quarterback of the high school team is found dead at the bottom of an abandoned mid-swamp fire tower.
Her tale is told in flashbacks, floridly-narrated by our heroine, as her old country lawyer (David Strathairn, classing up his scenes if not improving his tepid dialogue) tries to get her to open up as he prepares to defend her in court.
The word pictures of the novel become flatly-spoken monologues about how Catherine Danielle “Kya” Clark was taught as a child to “hide deep in the marsh, where the crawdads sing” when danger approaches. “Whenever I stumbled, the marsh’d catch me.”
Perhaps it’s the florid nature of that narration that convinced producer, Oscar-winner and Nashville native Reese Witherspoon that nobody in this story should have a Southern accent. A moment of relief that “Well, at least we don’t have another Brit attempting a drawl” is quickly replaced with, “Wait, NOBODY has one? Nobody even tried?”
The frame of the story is Kya narrating, ostensibly to her lawyer but mainly to some future reader of her diary/memoir, how she came to be in this murder rap fix, the childhood abuse of her drunken father (Garrett Dillahunt gives the most credible performance in the film) that caused her mother (Ahna O’Reilly) to just pack up and walk away in resigned shock, followed later by Kya’s siblings, one after the other.
Kya wakes up one day to find her father gone, too. So she takes the skiff and starts digging up mussels, selling them to the kindly Black couple, Mabel and Jumpin’ (Michael Hyatt and Sterling Macer, Jr.) who run the swampside general store and literarily-convenient seafood distribution operation. They become Kya’s protectors, with Mabel finding her clothes and shoes via her church charity and encouraging the child to take a stab at school. Barefoot and dirty (for the last time in the movie), little Kya (Jojo Regina) is teased right out of that idea.
But a local fisherman’s son, Tate (Taylor John Smith) takes a shine to her in their teens, befriends Kya and teaches her to read as they swap shells and feathers and such. Theirs is a storybook swamp romance until he goes off to Chapel Hill (UNC). Abandoned, Kya falls for the first hunk to show up with a shiny new boat, Chase (Harris Dickinson). That’s when things go from idealized hand-to-mouth living to a murder charge.
Scenic as Coastal Carolina is, as lyrical as Kya’s appreciation for marsh and swamp can be, one never runs out of ways this female wish fulfillment/living-happily-is-the-best revenge fantasy goes wrong.
The “To Kill a Mockingbird Rewritten by a High School Dropout” trial scenes, and the absurdly thorough-and-yet-comically-wrong-headed 1960s rural NC police investigation scenes that precede it play like the only homework anybody did was watching “Matlock/In the Heat of the Night” re-runs.
Producer Reese Witherspoon’s choice as director, Olivia Newman (“First Match”), can’t wring much pathos out of this lost-mother/abusive father/abused in love story, or get out of her own way most of the time.
And it’s not like the screenwriter or cast had any feel for the place, the people and the story. Whatever Delia Owens, a Georgia native, zoologist and under a cloud for being a possible accessory to murder in Zambia in the 90’s knows about the place, the people and the era is erased by the third time a character refers to going to “Asheville” for this, that or the other thing.
Asheville has long been a mountain vacation enclave, and is hundreds of miles from the Carolina coast, the sort of place you reach by passing through big cities like Charlotte, Raleigh or Winston-Salem. Owens screwed this up, but did the screenwriter look at a map? Or check the frequency of 1960s bus service to sleepy towns down South in before scripting multiple stops, all day and into the wee hours of the AM, every day for Barkley’s Cove?
The racism of the era is glimpsed just enough to give us a few other possible suspects in the death of the ex-quarterback. But one gets the feeling that this molasses-slow narrative is fixated on the “fantasy” side of the spectrum, with magical and insanely improbable solutions to money problems, education shortcomings, property deeds and Kya’s wardrobe and beauty regimen.
As with memoirs like “The Glass Castle,” “This Boy’s Life” and “The Prize-Winner of Defiance, Ohio,” “Crawdads” uses abuse, enduring it and escaping it in its many forms, as a literary hook. Here that’s reduced to just a couple of scenes of childhood beatings (and seeing their mother hit) and the suggestion that Kya’s got to be on her guard lest she repeat the cycle. Almost lost in the narrative, it can feel like cynical virtue signaling, just something the author thought she’d throw in to sell the book, just another deflection to hide the fact that she’s no mystery writer. Or geographer.
And while the cast is pretty far down the list of reasons “Crawdads” doesn’t come off, the lack of charisma or chemistry in the young leads and the cheapskate casting among the supporting players shows in every instantly-forgotten court or police investigation scene.
Sorry to beat the hell out of a book millions have bought and presumably adored. But “Where the Crawdads Sing” doesn’t sing a note in film form, and plays more like Nicholas Sparks than Harper Lee, more a Lifetime Original Movie than anything worth the price of a cinema ticket.
Rating: PG-13 for sexual content and some violence including a sexual assault.
Cast: Daisy Edgar-Jones, Taylor John Smith, Harris Dickinson, Michael Hyatt, Ahna O’Reilly, Garrett Dillahunt and David Strathairn.
Credits: Directed by Olivia Newman, scripted by Lucy Alibar, based on the novel by Delia Owens. A Sony Pictures release.
Running time: 2:05