Synopsis: A woman who raised herself in the marshes of the deep South becomes a suspect in the murder of a man with whom she was once involved.
Stars: Daisy Edgar-Jones, Taylor John Smith, Harris Dickinson, Michael Hyatt, Sterling Macer, Jr., David Strathairn
Director: Olivia Newman
Running Length: 125 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: I’ve had the bestselling novel Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens in my possession for well over two years, and once I heard Reese Witherspoon and her production company were adapting it for the big screen, I made the bold move of shifting it from the bookshelf to my nightstand. And that’s where it sat for the next several months. Always meeting my deadline, I finished the last chapter mere hours before my screening – a benefit because the characters were still alive in my head as the movie was beginning. Avoiding the marketing and as much casting info as possible allowed the situations and personalities screenwriter Lucy Alibar and director Olivia Newman brought to life in the feature film to make a good impression on me in real-time.
Fans of the tome will be happy to know that Alibar (Beasts of the Southern Wild) has delivered an admirably faithful adaptation of the worldwide favorite, a mystery involving a young woman left on her own in a North Carolina marsh and the murder she becomes involved with. It retains the intricate time jumps holding the key to unlocking its mystery and does so without sacrificing any character along the way. Alibar manages to make a few improvements to what Owens laid out, considerately consolidating for the efficiency of the film what could be languidly explored on the page.
As a child, Kya saw her family members desert her one by one, starting with her mother. Eventually, left alone with her alcoholic father in their home deep in the marsh, she learns to fend for herself and make her way in life. Befriended by a local couple (Sterling Macer, Jr. and Michael Hyatt) who ensure Kya has food and clothing without making it feel like a handout, Kya grows up knowing her place in the gossip mill of small-town life. A teen Kya (Daisy Edgar-Jones, Fresh) falls for handsome Tate (Taylor John Smith, Blacklight), who shares her love for nature and unique feathers but doubts she will want to leave the safety of the marsh for a life with him once adult life becomes a necessity. Enter Chase (Harris Dickinson, The King’s Man), a popular boy that targets Kya as a conquest he can brag about to his friends. The charming man sweeps her off her feet roughly, like men trying to be a savior often do.
This history is recounted to Kya’s defense attorney (David Strathairn, Nomadland), a character in the book that’s been beefed up by Alibar to solve third-person narration issues which hindered the storytelling. Now, it’s Kya telling her story and how she winds up on trial for murdering one of the men in her life. Who it is is revealed early on, but I won’t say it here. If you read the novel, you’ll know who and the solution. While nothing about the mystery has been changed, minor details have been ironed out to tell the story at hand better.
Well-acted by a strong ensemble, I especially liked Macer (Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story) and Hyatt (The Little Things) as Kya’s longtime surrogate guardian angels that knew her as a child and watched her grow into a woman that won’t follow the same rocky path as her family. Dickinson may be too oily, but it contrasts nicely with Smith’s squeaky clean chivalry. If there’s a drawback, it’s that the two look an awful lot alike, which is maybe the point, but it may be confusing to audiences. There are excellent brief turns from Garret Dillahunt (Army of the Dead) and a too-brief glimpse of Ahna O’Reilly (Bombshell) as Kya’s parents.
The star of the film is the star of the show too. Edgar-Jones, made an overnight star for her devastating work on Hulu’s Normal People, continues her rapid ascent to the A list with an understated but deeply affecting performance as Kya. In nearly every scene of the movie, she’s a captivating presence that’s key for an audience to want to root for her, even when we might not be sure of her innocence. Playing the sensitive moments with equal gravity as passages of assertive strength, Edgar-Jones feels this role in her bones and sells it well.
Where the Crawdads Sing is a solid example of how moving from page to screen can work exceedingly well when the right group of people gets together. Newman’s direction is unobtrusive and trusting of her actors, and the cinematography from Polly Morgan (A Quiet Place: Part II) captures the appeal of the marsh beautifully. Also beautiful? Mychael Danna’s (Life of Pi) ever-present score. Haunting (just like Taylor Swift’s closing credit song) and clarion, Danna helps the setting come alive. These prestige-y adaptations don’t often come around in the summer months like this. It’s clear that Sony isn’t exactly gunning for awards for this movie (though, in another dimensional fold, Edgar-Jones would undoubtedly have earned enough points to be on the shortlist for an Oscar) but instead attempting a nice bit of counter-programming.