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edge staff writer


‘Where the Crawdads Sing’ strikes too many false notes

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Confession time: I’m always just a little leery of film adaptations of recent best-sellers.

That might sound strange, coming from someone who reviews almost as many books as he does movies. And I’m not saying that recent books shouldn’t be made into films – there are plenty of quick turnaround cinematic adaptations that have worked very well.

However, just because a book is popular doesn’t mean that it will translate well to the big screen.

Such is the case with “Where the Crawdads Sing,” the new film based on the 2018 Delia Owens novel of the same name. Directed by Olivia Newman from a script adapted by Lucy Alibar, it’s the years-spanning story of a young woman who grew up largely alone and isolated in the marshes of North Carolina and the various trials and tribulations she endures, both due to her own actions and the perceptions of others.

Unfortunately, we never get much in the way of a settled tone. The emotional beats tend to whipsaw back and forth, from extremity to gentility and back, without much in the way of rhyme or reason. There are some strong performances and some beautifully atmospheric shots, but they aren’t enough to overcome the issues inherent to a film that can’t seem to stay out of its own way.

In 1969, two young boys come across a dead body in the marshes – a former high school hero. When the authorities arrive, it is unclear whether this was an accident or foul play, but the rumor mill starts churning immediately, with townspeople in Barkley Cove happy to point the finger at someone known to most by the derogatory moniker “The Marsh Girl.”

We flash back to the early 1950s. A young girl named Kya lives with her family in a North Carolina marsh. The initial idyllic appearance is quickly shattered as we see that the girl’s mother (Ahna O’Reilly) – not to mention Kya and her siblings – face the constant threat of physical and emotional abuse from her unstable and violent father (Garrett Dillahunt). We watch as, over the course of months, Kya’s mother and then all of her siblings depart, leaving Kya alone with her father … until he too disappears.

Left to fend for herself, she makes a connection with Jumpin’ (Sterling Macer Jr.) and Mabel (Michael Hyatt), the proprietors of a local general store and dock. Young Kya spends her time digging mussels to sell and exploring the natural beauty of the marshes, developing her own latent talents as an artist.

Some years pass. Kya winds up reconnecting with Tate (Taylor John Smith), a local boy who was once pals with Kya’s brother. Tate visits Kya and – since she never really went to school – teaches her to read and write. Their bond grows, even as questions of romance begin to bubble up. Tate’s ambition is to get out into the world; he dreams of attending college at UNC. Meanwhile, Kya is content to remain in the marsh, the only world she has ever known.

But it is when Chase Andrews (Harris Dickinson) enters her life that things truly begin to spiral for Kya. The two begin an affair, even though Kya has doubts about Chase’s decidedly murky motivations. And when she uncovers some hard truths, things get even more difficult – and deadly. And good old Chase winds up a body in the mud.

See, Kya stands accused of Chase’s murder – an accusation that too many townsfolk are more than happy to accept as fact. Her lone defender is the lawyer Tom Milton (David Strathairn), but even if he does his job – no easy feat – will it make a difference to a jury made up of people who believe they already know all they need to about That Marsh Girl?

There’s a general feeling of disjointedness throughout this film. Now, that can work if it is in service to a deliberate choice, but here, it’s almost as if the people involved simply lost track of the tone that was being struck. Tonal shifts are fine if they’re done in a way that makes sense, but here, it all seemed to be a bit of an emotional jumble, leaving the audience somewhat confused by the proceedings. We’re just never truly clear on what motivates most of these people, making it difficult to fully engage with any kind of real empathy.

The biggest issue is that “Where the Crawdads Sing” kind of seems like it wants to have its cake and eat it too. This is the story of a woman making the most of a hardscrabble life, one marked by loss and betrayal, yet large chunks of the story feel like they’ve been viewed through gauze, all fuzzy edges and lack of specificity. There’s some style at play, but there’s surprisingly little substance. It’s a plot-laden movie that still manages to feel like it’s spinning its wheels.

It just doesn’t, well … sing like it should.

Please note: none of this is the fault of Daisy Edgar-Jones, who actually gives a pretty killer (sorry) performance here. She endows Kya with complexity, a strange combination of frailty and strength that was likely quite difficult to pull off. She is damaged, yet determined – a winning combo. Unfortunately, none of the other folks are presented with anything like that kind of depth. There are a lot of one- and two-note characters here. The actors do what they can – Dickinson radiates entitled selfishness, Strathairn quiet nobility – but there isn’t much room to run. Macer and Hyatt are wonderful, but they are handcuffed by the circumstances surrounding them. And despite the fact that he’s the closest thing to a three-dimensional person aside from Kya, Tate never rings true in Smith’s hands; it’s a good-faith effort, but there’s a flatness to it. I’m not sure if I should ascribe it to the actor or to the script, but regardless, it’s there.

In the end, “Where the Crawdads Sing” shows us that sometimes popularity isn’t enough. The book simply doesn’t translate smoothly to the big screen. Sure, there’s some quality atmosphere and an excellent lead performance, but that isn’t nearly enough to get us there. It isn’t a terrible film, but neither is it good enough to stay afloat. Instead, it simply sinks into the marsh, out of sight and – rather quickly – out of mind.

[2 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 18 July 2022 10:27


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