It’s been a while since a big summer blockbuster was based on a bestselling novel for grown-ups, where characters are accused of murder, face off in hot courtrooms and sometimes have sex. Nostalgia for this more seasonal, less fantastical brand of hot-weather movie powers Where the Crawdads Sing, based on the 2018 book by Delia Owens, but it can’t make up for where the film falls short.
The potboiler premise is theoretically irresistible: Kya (Daisy Edgar-Jones), a young woman living on her own in the North Carolina marsh, gets hauled off to jail by the local authorities, accused of murdering local man Chase Andrews (Harris Dickinson). Her good-hearted lawyer (David Strathairn) attempts to draw some information out of her, and flashbacks fill in Kya’s personal history. We see her tumultuous and abuse-filled childhood, and experience her stubborn outcast status as the resourceful sole inhabitant of her marsh shack. It’s part survivalist romance, part murder mystery.
Maybe in the book, Kya comes across as more feral, more potentially dangerous. On film, she’s basically Hot Nell, a new version of the 1994 Jodie Foster Oscar-bait character who has, in this telling, learned how to neatly apply lipstick and tailor perfect fits for her cutoff jeans and flowy tops. Her talent is supposed to be in observing and drawing the plants and animals around her, but her real claim to fame is inventing and mastering ‘marsh chic’. This contradiction powers the movie’s greatest spectacle – its basic elements clashing with each other at odd angles. Director Olivia Newman shows Kya as an ethereal beauty, soundtracked by Taylor Swift‘s mournful original song ‘Carolina’, while the script wants us to see her only as mistreated swamp creature. These different views are not impossible to reconcile, but it’s a tough job for anyone watching.
Edgar-Jones is compelling, and in a more sure-footed (or less tasteful) thriller, the movie’s ludicrousness might be delightful. But instead of generating suspense from tightening the screws on Kya, Where the Crawdads Sing takes a bafflingly opposite tactic, presenting a case with almost no solid evidence – though it doesn’t keep the courtroom observers from near-constant murmuring over all of the supposed bombshells. It’s eventually suggested that the prosecution moves forward mostly because the townsfolk hate and fear Kya for no good reason which, frankly, may not be the most productive thematic throughline for a white girl whose story partially takes place during the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. Naturally, a Black couple in town exists mainly to assist and care for Kya.
Where the Crawdads Sing is often laughable, but Newman doesn’t present the material with the kind of panache that could complete its transformation into a trash classic. Like its heroine, it’s too skittish to embrace its inner wildness – a wannabe naturalist that insists on covering up.
- Director: Olivia Newman
- Starring: Daisy Edgar-Jones, Taylor John Smith, Harris Dickinson
- Release date: July 22