BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) — “Where the Crawdads Sing” is based on the best-selling novel by Delia Owens. The loyal fans of the book will be at a great advantage over those who have not read the work because the big-screen adaptation by director Olivia Newman and Lucy Alibar fails to find a distinct tone and cohesive storyline.
The way the film is structured, it is as if Alibar opted to skip every other page of the book. There are gaps, huge questions and missed writing opportunities from the first moments in the South Carolina swamps (that were actually filmed in Louisiana).
“Where the Crawdads Sing” follows Kya (played by multiple actors at various ages including Jojo Regina and Daisy Edgar-Jones) who is abandoned by her mother and abusive father when she is a child. She survives living alone in the swamps with only some minor assistance.
The majority of the residents of Barkley Cove have shunned the youngster who is known only as “Marsh Girl.” Don’t look for a lot of answers to how a child can live alone and survive for a decade because the screenplay offers few insights. There is more of a rush to get Kya to an age of consent so that two men can come into her life.
Tate (Taylor John Smith) is a sensitive soul who proclaims his unconditional love for Kya. He’s the kind of suitor that is generally found in a Hallmark movie or a Nichols Sparks novel. His deep love doesn’t stop Tate from leaving and ignoring Kya for years.
Kya’s need for love and companionship opens the door for Chase (Harris Dickinson), the typical townie who will say anything to get what he wants. The only thing that stops his privileged approach to life is when he gets murdered. Kya ends up on trial accused of killing Chase.
The performance by Edgar-Jones finds the right levels of strength and vulnerability needed to win over an audience. There are an endless amount of questions about her survival skills and sudden artistic process but because of the time restraints of a film adaptation, no time is spent explaining how a young girl who only spends one day in school could be so articulate at such a young age. The one thing that is certain is that there was no useful homeschooling by her father.
A book can offer so many more details that just have to be glossed over in a film adaptation. At least Edgar-Jones creates a strong but sympathetic character with what she has to work with in the script.
Despite David Strathairn’s portrayal of Kya’s lawyer being the best Southern litigator since Atticus Finch the court scenes feature the same gaping holes that plague the rest of the film. The sequences are played in such a way that there is no real tension as the outcome is so predictable.
A good legal drama needs to push and pull the viewer in different directions. That keeps the obvious from being so blatant. Strathairn’s performance is worthy of Oscar consideration but he gets more out of the role than the script provides.
The problems keep circling back to Newman and Alibar.
An audience needs to feel the heat and humidity of a film set in southern swamps. There is no heat. There isn’t even a rainstorm that is a familiar gimmick in these kinds of taboo young love stories.
The director also never ventures into an examination of the dangers. Kya never deals with wild beasts (unless you count the two-legged variety).
Newman becomes so engaged by the landscape that there is a blindness to what direction the story should take. There are moments when the film is a standard love story but then it quickly turns into a cautionary tale of bigotry, abuse and hatred. The legal elements invade just at the moment the love story is taking shape. This would have been acceptable if the courtroom drama had some real drama.
Newman just needed to pick a direction and embrace it. Instead, the film is a mishmash of genres with none getting a fully proper treatment.
“Where the Crawdads Sing” has some positive elements especially the work of Edgar-Jones and Strathairn. The basic story idea is there but never finds the kind of fluidity – be it romantic or criminal – needed to carry the uninformed to a satisfying ending.
Where the Crawdads Sing
Cast: Daisy Edgar-Jones, Taylor John Smith, David Strathairn, Harris Dickinson.
Director: Olivia Newman
Rated: PG-13 for sexual assault, violence, language
Running time: 125 minutes.