Where The Crawdads Sing is in theaters on July 15, 2022.
Where The Crawdads Sing is a strange case of a film made marginally more interesting by the circumstances of its creation. Part period romance and part legal drama, this oddly structured literary adaptation has little going for it beyond its lead actress, but a quick glance at its story and at the life of Delia Owens — the author and conservationist who wrote the book of the same name — reveals a potentially unsavory point of view on the crime that sets the plot in motion. However, the filmmakers don’t quite know what to do with this information (which, in the novel, can’t help but read as boastful), so the resulting perspective is lopsided at best, hesitant at worst, and robs the movie of a raw and ugly narrative power.
The broad strokes are as follows: set in the marshlands of North Carolina in the 1960s, the film opens with the police discovering the body of town quarterback Chase Andrews (Harris Dickinson). Circumstantial evidence points towards recluse Catherine Clark (Daisy Edgar-Jones), nicknamed Kya by her family, but dubbed “Marsh Girl” by unkind townsfolk. Gossip spreads, and retired defendant Tom Milton (David Strathairn) decides to take up the case, but not before he listens to Kya narrate her life story, of which we see every single major detail, from her childhood abandonment, to her blossoming teenage romance with a boy named Tate (Taylor John Smith), to how she and Chase eventually cross paths.
Despite the story being framed as the unraveling of a mystery, the actual details of the case are all hastily shoved into the film’s final few minutes, with bits of information provided just in time for reveals with little impact. Instead, what we’re given is a play-by-play of Kya’s life in ways that rarely hold relevance to the trial, other than vague gesturing towards the way she’s viewed by the fictitious town of Barkley Cove (of which we see very little). There’s little interplay between the two halves of its non-linear structure, and even the portraiture of Kya it manages to paint is rather rote, edited with more care for information than for mood, emotion, or rhythm. While director Olivia Newman and cinematographer Polly Morgan manage to capture the poetry of the marsh, with a sense of wistful nostalgia, their establishing and transitionary shots of nature are about the only things that don’t unfold mechanically. Even the story’s gendered circumstances — of how a potentially wronged Kya might be painted by society, in contrast to a beloved football star — are swiftly brushed over.
If the film has a major on-screen strength, it’s Edgar-Jones’ conception of Kya, as a wounded, lonely artist with an academic passion for flora and fauna. However, her existence as a misunderstood author-self-insert can’t help but summon real-life details past the movie’s fourth wall. Brace yourself. Real-life conservationist Owens is wanted for questioning in a televised 1996 killing in Zambia, of a man flimsily accused of poaching, whose shooting death was broadcast as part of an ABC documentary. It is, for all intents and purposes, a snuff film, and while Owens maintains total non-involvement in the matter, the details of her novel (and now, its big screen adaptation) make for an unsettling companion piece.
The real-life and fictional deaths have different settings, but what they have in common is a dedicated nature lover thrust into the spotlight under accusations of murder. What makes this all the more unsavory are the conclusions the book and movie eventually come to, but given the latter’s rushed framing of its fictitious case, it spends very little time ruminating on the central premise of a misunderstood girl claiming innocence and fighting for her survival. So, the film ends up avoiding the opportunity to draw on something real, even if that “something” is starkly discomforting.
You’d rather see an objectionable piece of art than a boring one, but alas, Where The Crawdads Sing is overtly the latter, playing out like a meandering, birth-to-death Wikipedia biopic without the excuse of being based on a real person. Its eventual ruminations on resilience and survival are knee-capped by trepidation, since it refuses to get its hands dirty by plunging them into ethical complications. What’s left is only a broad, misplaced, didactic sense of idealism, instead of what ought to have been a much more challenging story — or at the very least, a more offensive one, if only to elicit some kind of emotional response.
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