Directed by: Olivia Newman
Distributed by: Sony Pictures
Written by Taylor Baker
“Where the Crawdads Sing” is a conventional adaptation of a Young Adult novel by the same name. Complete with a false sense of mysteriousness. The opening prologue sequence details Kya’s (Daisy Edgar-Jones) imprisonment following the death of a man in the swamp where she lives. While in the prison cell, we watch Kya’s difficult childhood play out. Her father’s physical abuse, the ridicule she receives from the town for being poor and uneducated, and each family member abandoning their home and consequently her. These storytelling techniques and emotions are used so consistently in YA Novels because they are effective, evocative, and build out worlds and character dynamics quickly. Those strengths are often lost in the film medium. That’s not to say that the consequences of repeating those techniques won’t build the world or character dynamics at all but it often relegates the characterization to a stilting haphazard slowness that is as unsubtle as it is forced. The inquisitive techniques that authors implement to play a game with readers are also not something that commonly translates well in the mode of film.
The film turns from a conventional flashback to an alternating romance-laced flashback/courtroom procedural rather effortlessly. Walking us through Kya’s first love Tate (Taylor John Smith), their falling out, and her second boyfriend, Chase (Harris Dickinson). Who is also the man she’s accused of murdering. In much of the middle of the film’s flashbacks, large portions of the cinematography appear to be shot on location and the sand, marshland, and water along with the warm natural lighting build out a sense of place. This is important because when we’re in the town it seems like we could be on location for “Elvis,” “The Devil All the Time,” or any other recent film set in the mid-1900s film depicting a small town in America. So cementing us, the audience into the sticky humidity of the marshland she calls home is one of the core elements of the film that works effectively, at least in some portions.
A handful of younger female actresses have burst onto the scene in standout roles in the last decade, such as Florence Pugh in “Lady Macbeth” and Thomasin Mackenzie in “Leave No Trace.” Daisy Edgar-Jones seemed to have joined their ranks following her standout performance in the Hulu/BBC series “Normal People” in which she starred opposite another unknown Paul Mescal. This is her second feature film role as the main character since her star rose two years ago, following 2020’s “Normal People.” She also recently led “Fresh” opposite Sebastian Stan which detailed a meet-cute turned cannibalistic nightmare. All this is to say that as an audience we have enormous, perhaps unfair expectations of Edgar-Jones, and while she plays her part adequately here, she doesn’t stand out. She fails to steal scenes she’s central to though she does provide a consistent strength as a central roleplayer.
David Strathairn plays a straight-laced friendly lawyer who saves Kya for free. The narrative’s use of incidental flashback tie-ins to sew a history between Kya and Strathairn’s Tom Milton underscores the issues with “faithful” adaptations of this genre in particular. The mechanics that make for effective and deliberate YA storytelling on the page do not easily translate to the screen. The embedded relationships that we see Kya build with store owners Mabel (Michael Hyatt) and Jumpin’ (Sterling Macer Jr) are far more affecting, their shared hug following the verdict in the courtroom stirs one’s emotions far more than the backdoored emotionality between Strathairn’s Milton and Edgar-Jones’s Kya.
Olivia Newman’s previous film “First Match” which she also wrote was more refined and concentrated. One could and might correctly draw a correlation to that runtime of 94 minutes against “Where the Crawdads Sings” 125-minute runtime. But it is notable that there are sequences in this film where it appears Newman found some semblance of personal meaning. Particularly the early romantic sequences with Tate while Kya learns how to read and falls in love with him. While he incidentally helps her fall in deeper love with the swamp she calls home. I won’t call this effort by Newman a full-fledged misstep, because I get the sense that this project would likely turn out similar no matter who’d helmed it. But I would love to see Newman pick up the pen and control the full vision of her next foray to screen. The auteur that showed herself in “First Match” was someone to be contended with. “Where the Crawdads Sing” like so many other YA adaptations seems destined to end with the film’s DVDs in the 5$ bin at Walmart alongside unsold copies of the paperback book touting its big screen adaptation with a sticker that one is too nervous to peel off for fear of scoring the cover. Forgettable.
“Where the Crawdads Sing” Trailer
“Where the Crawdads Sing” is in wide theatrical release.
You can follow more of Taylor’s thoughts on film on Letterboxd, Twitter, and Rotten Tomatoes.