Where the Crawdads Sing Can’t Sell Its Empowerment Fantasy

IIn any tale, the compelling story of a young girl who survives on her own merits attention for several reasons. She’s probably resilient and resourceful, and she defies norms without caring what others think of her. This is Kya, heroine of the film. The Crawdads sing, the film adaptation of Delia Owens’ 2018 runaway best-seller. Kya Clark has lived alone in the North Carolina marshes for much of her young life, and even though this is the South of the 1960s, the locals eye her with suspicion that wouldn’t be out of place in 17th century Salem. They refer to her, so many times you could make a drinking game out of it, as “that marsh girl,” a pejorative always delivered with a gossipy hiss. She’s an individualist with the accent on the i, an island unto herself who doesn’t need any man—until The oneShe is fiercely protected by those who are able to understand her.

As a character, Kya is so many fantasies rolled into one—a prickly, wholly self-sufficient being who’s still magnetic enough to attract a classic country hottie—that you’d think she couldn’t possibly fail, either on the page or in a movie. But Olivia Newman’s adaptation of Where the Crawdads SingIt seems that Newman is moving at such an erratic pace, even crayfish singing in a mystical way, that she may give up. Newman seems to be so enthralled with the material, which was adapted by Lucy Alibar for screen, that she appears to be walking around the film trying to get it right. Onscreen, Kya is so iconoclastically noble that she’s something of a bore, even though the talented actress who plays her as an adult, Daisy Edgar-Jones, tries to steer her into more subtle territory. It’s a film that is constantly trying to please the masses, but it only gets tiresome.

Sterling Macer Jr., and Michael Hyatt are a kind couple who help the protagonist

Michele K. Short—Sony Pictures Entertainment

Kya—played as a child by Jojo Regina—has never gone to school: she tries it once, but in her odd dress and bare feet, unable to spell even the word dog, she’s laughed out of the classroom. Her father (Garret Dillahunt) is an abusive drunkard who drives the rest of her family—mother, brothers and sisters—out of their shack-like house. Kya learns to avoid him and survives until eventually he is gone. With the help of a few kind humans—including Jumpin’ and Mabel (Sterling Macer Jr. and Michael Hyatt), the Black couple who run the grocery store in town—Kya learns how to take care of herself, ignoring the derisive whispers of the other townsfolk. She can’t read or write, but she’s deeply attuned to the natural world, using her mother’s left-behind watercolors to capture the essence of the mollusks, plants, birds, and insects around her. And though she’s happy enough in her solitude, she finds greater joy in opening up to the one man who truly understands her, Tate Walker (Taylor John Smith)—later to be replaced by a man who’s merely obsessed with her, the town football star and uncaring lug Chase Andrews (Harris Dickinson).

Read more reviews by Stephanie Zacharek

A dead body opens the movie, giving us a hint of what to expect from a Southern gothic. However, Where the Crawdads SingToo opulent, too refined, for this. The marsh girl is certain to have committed any crime in the area. You should now be taking your second shot. She’s put on trial, but at least she has a kindly country lawyer, played by David Stathairn, to represent her; he knows this misunderstood loner has been dealt a bad hand. The story cuts between that trial and the events leading up to it, including Kya’s fierce pushback during an attempted rape—there’s no doubt this girl is fearless, and playing her, Edgar-Jones has some of the understated spark of the young Holly Hunter. She knows how to tell us what her character is thinking without spelling it out in broad emotional semaphore—although the movie around her does a pretty efficient job of that.

David Strathairn portrays a kind country lawyer during the central murder trial

Michele K. Short—Sony Pictures Entertainment

Many of the characters are still unclear. The movie’s chief bad guy supposedly harbors at least a germ of human feeling—it’s broadly hinted at, in an attempt to make him multidimensional, but so clumsily handled that it makes no sense. Newman does know that Kya’s world of marsh and swamp, along with all its inhabitants, deserves special focus: the film has been beautifully shot by Polly Morgan, who pays keen attention to the wonders of natural light and the shimmering movement of birds and insects.

The result is still dull and boring. Reese Witherspoon, one of the film’s executive producers, had given Owens’ novel—her first, published at age 70—an early boost by choosing it for her book club. (The book and the subsequent adaptation have also become the subject of controversy, related to an incident from Owens’ past. Owens and her stepson, who were at that time conservationists in Zambia, are being sought for questions about the murder of a poacher. Witherspoon has called the book a “love letter to growing up in the South,” and the film appears to be striving for the same mood of nobility. It could be more florid, for a film set in swamps and marshes. Where the Crawdads SingIt is surprising how inert. This protagonist has a way to care for herself. She finds mussels in the area and then exchanges it for food or fuel for her boat. Her wardrobe is full of cute second-hand clothing. Even securing a contract as a publisher! It’s an empowerment fantasy that is more loud than a million cicadas. And still, it’s hard to buy a minute of it.

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