When it comes to novel adaptations, sometimes it’s pretty clear where they come up lacking. It’s one thing to recognize how a film can’t fit every detail, character, and plotline within a set runtime the way a book can. However, it’s another thing to feel as though a movie is missing out on building the understanding one gets from how characters and story beats are written. Where the Crawdads Sing has this issue. While decently acted and making good enough use of its Louisiana locations (subbing in for North Carolina), for a film chronicling a mystery set in a marsh, it comes up shallow when attempting to define any of these characters outside of its lead.
The film focuses on Kya Clark (played as an adult by Daisy Edgar-Jones). She’s known as “Marsh Girl” to most of the residents of Barkley Cove, as she lives a reclusive life out on her own in the wetlands. As the story begins, Kya has been accused of murder. Most of the film revolves around how things led up to this point. As we learn, Kya was abandoned by her parents (Ahna O’Reilly and Garret Dillahunt) at a young age. She learned to fend for herself with help from a kindly Black couple, Mabel and Jumpin (Michael Hyatt and Sterling Macer, Jr.), who own a general store, and Tate (Taylor John Smith), a young man who teaches Kya to read and write.
With a mix of mystery and coming-of-age storytelling, there, of course, has to be a level of melodrama to shake up Kya’s life. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t know how to balance the many different characters better. There are plenty of individual scenes that work thanks to what Edgar-Jones brings to the material and her chemistry with all her different co-stars. The problem is how disconnected they all feel from each other. It’s rare you see any of these various supporting characters in scenes with anyone but Kya, which becomes an issue when considering how ill-defined they are.
Understandably, this story requires certain types, and that’s why there’s no real way to hide how Kya’s suitor and eventually murdered victim in question, Chase Andrews (Harris Dickinson), is clearly bad news from the start. Having archetypal characters is not a crime, but adding so little shading to them drags the film down in terms of pacing. Smith’s Tate is a fine fellow and all, but the way he’s treated as a golden boy and nothing else robs the film of more urgency, and also makes it confusing when the plot requires him to not be around for a section of the film.
While I have not read Delia Owens’ novel, it does feel as though many defining elements of these characters have been reduced in favor of tightening the story. It’s understandable to make certain decisions for the sake of a reasonable runtime. Still, it was easy to see where the film could have spent more time to have the audience better embrace the world of this film. As it stands, key moments feel rushed, and a lack of stronger presence from these characters means they can’t make up for a story that’s lacking.
On the plus side, in addition to Edgar-Jones making the most out of the shy young woman who learns to be more than just self-sufficient, the warmth of David Strathairn is always welcome. He plays Kya’s lawyer, and while the courtroom scenes are only scattered throughout the film, his relaxed nature is a benefit. The same can be said for Hyatt’s Mabel, who does just enough with various expressions to add nuance to how she cares for Kya. That said, with this film set in the South during the 1960s, the decision to basically avoid the racial component (pretty much everyone is friendly to the folks at the general store) means denying the film a chance to further show how Kya fits in with the world around her.
Director Olivia Newman (responsible for the pretty terrific Netflix film First Match) does what’s required of her for this story. The scenery and production design are on par with any number of Southern dramas immersed in the nature around the characters. The constant use of marsh-based locations, small motorboats used as primary transportation, and Kya’s home all allow for a certain level of comfort in understanding this environment. However, that also leads to a sense of repetition and given how many beats of the plot feel predictable, the elements on display can only take a film so far.
While laid back in its pacing, there’s a lot of Where the Crawdads Sing that is certainly watchable. A lot of that is due to the strength of its lead character. It’s just a shame the attempt to tell a story about rejection from society, and female empowerment only goes so far when adding murder and a generic love triangle into the equation. Fans of the novel likely won’t be too pleased by what’s been excised for the sake of the cinematic treatment. For anyone else, the story of Kya, the “Marsh Girl,” does not amount to much excitement or challenge when looking at the potential to do more.