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Olivia Newman’s “Where the Crawdads Sing,” based on the bestselling novel by Delia Owens, is a good-looking melodrama that begins well enough but quickly loses its way, sacrificing moments of genuine humanity and connection for two-dimensional efficiency. It often feels like the film is terrified of alienating fans of its source material. It is unwilling to omit a single plot point, resulting in a film that feels like a sequence of events that never actually comes together to form a coherent character piece. It is a Wikipedia summary cloaked in pretty scenery; appealing to look at, but far from impactful.
The story follows the life of Kya Clark (Daisy Edgar-Jones), a young woman whose family abandons her when she is a little girl growing up in 1950s North Carolina. She spends several years fending for herself, living alone in her family’s cabin in the secluded marshes outside the small town of Barclay Cove. As she gets older, she meets and falls in love with Tate Walker (Taylor John Smith), a sensitive biologist who teaches Kya to read and write. This romance soon gives way to another, as Kya is then courted by the rich, cocky Chase Andrews (Harris Dickinson), whose eventual untimely death lands Kya in jail for murder. Defending Kya is a kindly old lawyer named Tom Milton (David Strathairn), who attempts to push past the jury’s prejudice against “the marsh girl” and only present the facts, which would seemingly exonerate her.
This is an extensive amount of story to try to fit into two short hours of screen time, and the film suffers greatly under the strain. Scene after scene, audiences are rushed through major character developments, which are summed up with expository dialogue or voiceover narration. Whatever weight these developments are meant to have is put squarely on the shoulders of the actors, who are required to convey romance, loneliness, tension, and fear all in a matter of seconds. As hard as the cast may try, they aren’t up to the task. I’m not sure if any actor would be able to do what this story requires, considering the screenplay they are given to work with. It is simultaneously too much and not enough.
Perhaps if the director were more willing to condense or combine certain story elements, there would be more time for the emotional implications of those elements to truly connect, both with the characters and with the audience. Certainly, the film’s screenwriter, Lucy Alibar, would have been more than capable of giving the characters the room to thoroughly explore what they’re feeling, had the director and studio allowed it. Alibar is the writer behind the fascinating, “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” another film exploring the plight of the waterlogged and forgotten. If any writer could have put us inside the world of an illiterate “marsh girl,” it would have been her. Being shackled so securely to the popular source material, though, Alibar’s never really allowed to fly.
The same can be said of lead actress Daisy Edgar-Jones, who is able to embody Kya’s naivete, vulnerability, cynicism, and hopefulness, despite the script’s breakneck pacing. However, even with Edgar-Jones’s humanizing performance, Kya is written as an overly-pure soul; a character with no visible faults, who is constantly wronged by those around her. She is essentially perfect, which actually works against the character. With no real flaws, Kya has nothing to learn and nowhere to go, ultimately simplifying her character into a two-dimensional bore.
It doesn’t help that the character’s perfection extends to her appearance, as well. While the natural environments of the film are photographed beautifully – as they should be – the movie’s visual aesthetic is often too pristine, too pretty. Given that our main character has been living all alone in a cabin with no electricity in the middle of a swamp, wearing only the ratty clothes left behind by her family, one would think that Kya might occasionally be permitted to look a little dirty at times; perhaps even a bit grimy. However, that’s not how this film operates. Kya always looks flawless; not a hair out of place. Just another instance of our protagonist’s perfection. She’s so pure that not even the dirt will stick to her.
In the end, all of these different elements – the archetypal characters, the too-clean aesthetic, the constant exposition – add up to a theatrical Hollywood film that both looks and feels much like a standard Lifetime movie. It is the story of a pure spirit constantly let down by the world around her, until she finally calls upon her inner strength to assert herself and live a happier life. This inner strength, which is ever-present and not something she ever has to discover or develop, only underlines the flatness and predictability of the story.
I have no doubt that many of Kya’s struggles and motivations are more clearly outlined in the novel and couldn’t be fully explored in a two-hour film, but that’s the problem with adaptations, isn’t it? When drawing upon an existing work of art in order to make a movie, everything doesn’t always translate. Eventually, the director must choose whether she is making a visualized novel or an actual movie. In the case of “Where the Crawdads Sing,” it’s obvious which choice Olivia Newman made. When a director is simply following a pre-approved template, she shouldn’t be too surprised if the resulting movie is uninspired.
The views expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.