Though it’s adapted from a 2018 novel, Where the Crawdads Sing feels like it should be a much older movie. It’s got hints of the prestige courtroom drama and mid-budget female-led thrillers that dominated the mid-to-late 90s. It’s the kind of film that, had it actually been made between 1996 and 1999, would have starred a steely Ashley Judd rather than a wide-eyed Daisy Edgar-Jones.
Maybe it’s that out-of-placeness that makes Olivia Newman’s take on Delia Owens’ novel feel like a trifle. Maybe it’s the fact that these days, most mid-budget dramas feel disposable by default, just glue to hold us together between Marvel and Tom Cruise movies. A more likely culprit, however, is a script that’s content to skate over the surface of its world and characters. Owens and co-screenwriter Lucy Alibar waste potential for an immersive, sultry tale that leaves viewers guessing in favor of Edgar-Jones’ Kya giving us a glorified book report of her own life.
In 1969, Kya, a young woman who lives on her own in the Carolina marshes, is accused of killing Chase Andrews (Harris Dickinson), a popular young man from town who she was once involved with. As a lifelong outcast, Kya—who maintains her innocence—assumes her ticket is punched, but finds an ally in retired lawyer Tom Milton (David Strathairn), who takes her case. The rest of the film switches between Kya’s story of raising herself in the marsh after her family abandoned her, and the murder trial.
From its unique natural setting to its rich set of characters, much in Where the Crawdads Sing cries out for deep dramatic dives into its distinct world. It’s hard, for example, not to think of a movie like Kasi Lemmons’ Eve’s Bayou, which used similar themes and settings to create a full, mysterious world. Even Fried Green Tomatoes offered up a thoroughly realized world and character relationships, tinged with occasional darkness that felt appropriate to its Alabama location.
Unfortunately, Where the Crawdads Sing feels generic, with supporting characters fulfilling tired clichés when they could be charismatic and layered. Much of this is due to the fact that we don’t spend enough time with people like Strathairn’s Tom, or the Black shop owner (Sterling Macer Jr.) and his wife (Michael Hyatt) who help Kya out, to learn about their motivations.
For her part, Edgar-Jones does her best to let us into Kya’s emotional headspace. We see her loneliness and feel her shyness. When Kya’s talents as a self-taught naturalist turn into a book deal, Edgar-Jones’ delight at receiving early copies of her book and pleasure at being able to furnish the small house she lives in feel authentic. These are easily the film’s deepest moments, and if Where the Crawdads Sing extended more of those opportunities toward Kya, or the people around her, it would be a much more memorable movie than it is.
The beats of Where the Crawdads Sing hint at a darker film, suffused with mystery and suspense. There are plenty of past examples to suggest what such a movie might look like, were the story treated more carefully. Unfortunately, by taking the easy route the whole way through, it leaves no impact at all. The movie might as well be cinematic teflon—it’s not overtly bad, and there’s enough content to sustain you through the running time, but don’t expect anything to stick.
“Where the Crawdads Sing” is in theaters Friday.