Imagine if The Prince Of Tides had the world’s most boring baby with Nell as they watched To Kill A Mockingbird one late night on TMC, and you’ll get a glimmer of how I felt watching Where The Crawdads Sing, Oscar-nominated screenwriter Lucy Alibar’s (Beasts Of The Southern Wild) adaptation of Delia Owens’ bestseller, and easily the hands down contender for Worst Film of 2022. Making her feature directing debut, Olivia Newman knows how to produce workmanlike images, but struggles with such issues as pacing, performance, credibility, and an unbearably maudlin tone.
Set amidst the marshes and swamps of 1950s North Carolina (and yes, there’s a difference, which gets explained in the first of many voiceovers, along with the movie’s title, which never comes across as a classy thing to do in a film), the story honorably tries to explore the issues of cycles of abuse and overcoming trauma, but ends up a dull love triangle intercut with a sparks-free courtroom drama. By the time it reaches the inevitable “shocking twist” near the end, I gave up caring, despite it opening everything up to a bunch of unanswered questions.
Daisy Edgar-Jones, so fantastic in Normal People, Fresh, and Under The Banner Of Heaven, and easily one of my favorite younger actors, stars as Kya, who from early childhood has been living on her own in a backwoods house. That her mother and siblings escape her abusive father (Garret Dillahunt), who ultimately leaves Kya as well, defies credibility right from the start. Who would leave the youngest child alone with such a monster? I guess we’re supposed to think, “Hey, it’s the South and they do things different down there”.
We watch Kya, who gets dubbed “the Marsh Girl” by the locals, figure out how to survive, eventually foraging for mussels and selling them to Jumping and Mabel, the Black proprietors of the general store. As played by Michael Hyatt and Sterling Macer Jr., both very good, who know a thing or two about overcoming adversity, they provide the only oasis for Kya in her increasingly difficult life. Their story would make for a more compelling film, instead of centering it on an unbelievable main character.
As a teen, Kya develops a romance with Tate (Taylor John Smith), a childhood friend who encourages her in her fascination with plant and insect life. Eventually, he goes off to college, promising to return to her for the Fourth Of July, but he doesn’t, leaving Kya sad and alone in one of the few affecting scenes in the film. She eventually strikes up another relationship with Chase (Harris Dickinson, Beach Rats), a seemingly polite but alarmingly abusive man.
Charged with the murder of a significant character and put on trial, Kya, who has always been looked at by the community as a freak, gets that ridiculous movie cliché of a lawyer drawn out of retirement because he just has-ta, he just has-ta defend this poor child. As played by David Strathairn, in half speed Atticus Finch mode, his Tom Milton has “Great White Trope” written all over him.
I won’t spoil where all this goes, but suffice it to say, the two love interests feel almost interchangeable and bland, despite the element of danger attached to Boyfriend #2. The score by Mychael Danna (Oscar Winner for Life Of Pi) adds a hopelessly dull layer of syrup to an already snails-paced story. Edgar-Jones tries her best, and scores emotional points here and there, but either feels miscast or doesn’t quite find the right balance between the wild child and sophisticated grown-up that the improbable script demands. I’ll still watch anything she does, as she’s just so good. I have not read the source material, but this film plays like an overlong beach read that results in a terrible sunburn, dehydration, and the onset of heatstroke. Humorless, self-important and endless, Where The Crawdads Sing, the latest in a long string of Hollywood’s depiction of Southern Fried hokum, croaks instead.
By Glenn Gaylord, Senior Film Critic
Where The Crawdads Sing is currently playing in theaters worldwide and is doing quite well. So what do I know?