What are crawdads you say? Yes, I had to look this up. The only other reference to crawdads in a film that I can remember was in the Coen Brothers’ highly funny Raising Arizona (1987). Turns out they are crayfish – termed ‘crawdads’ in the central and southern regions of the U.S. In this film adaptation of Delia Owens’ bestselling novel, Where the Crawdads Sing refers to the marshlands of North Carolina.
Set in the early 60s, in a small town in North Carolina, a couple of kids discover the body of a local high school quarterback in the marsh. As local police investigate, it doesn’t take long for their suspicions to point to young recluse Kya Clark (Daisy Edgar-Jones), known dismissively to the townsfolk as the “marsh girl” and collectively as the local pariah.
Born from relatively little means by the town’s standards, Kya’s home is dominated by an abusive, alcoholic, war veteran father implied to be suffering from PTSD. As her mother, siblings and eventually her father take their leave, she is left to survive on her own with the help of a local black couple. Kya is arrested and charged for the murder, while local lawyer Tom Milton (David Strathairn) steps in as her sympathetic defense lawyer. Through continuing flashbacks, events are slowly revealed about her ties to the deceased body leading up to the present. Was it a murder or an accident?
Where the Crawdads Sing is a slick and glossy take on the 2018 novel bolstered by Reese Witherspoon’s book club and later purchased the rights through her production company Hello Sunshine. The film’s tone and the overall look is elegant and straightforward thanks to Olivia Newman’s able direction and Polly Morgan’s beautiful photography.
Lucy Alibar’s screenplay is direct and comprehensible which adds to the film’s appeal to general audiences (most notably young adults). But its simplicity feels in a way, not unlike the soapy melodrama of Twilight or others of the same ilk. Subjectively, it’s not a complex film which could be a plus or minus depending on your point of view.
Though I was engaged, I could not help but notice the film’s predictability. While some themes were touched upon, it felt surface deep and we’re left wanting for a bit more. Overall, it’s almost a grander version of a Perry Mason episode but in today’s version of technicolor.
Daisy Edgar-Jones almost saves this film with her committed performance as Kya. She is photogenically gorgeous in it but that sometimes takes away from Crawdads’ realism – it’s not hard to imagine a rougher version of Kya, especially with all that she has gone through in her life up to this point. Nevertheless, she is the main reason this film will go over well with a lot of moviegoers, especially fans of her previous work the TV series Normal People. The other reason to watch this film is the veteran David Strathairn who exudes great character acting with ease. It’s his presence that gives the film its air of legitimacy.
Where the Crawdads Sing does have its moments and that’s due to Edgar-Jones and Strathairn as well as its very capable filmmakers who also happen to be women. The film, however, feels a bit anachronistic in its portrayal of minority characters. But this might be more a reflection of its writer Delia Owens who is no stranger to controversy herself having previously lived in Zambia in a previous decade amid a poacher killing scandal. Ultimately, the film falls a bit short for me for its predictability, anachronism, and lack of realism – aspects of which really could have brought Crawdads to a higher level. Ironically, Where the Crawdads Sing may be a better read than a watch.
Review by Vince Caro