Runtime: 125 minutes
Director: Olivia Newman
Writer: Lucy Alibar, based on ,”Where the Crawdads Sing” by Delia Owens
Starring: Daisy Edgar-Jones, Taylor John Smith, Harris Dickinson, Michael Hatt, Sterling Macer Jr, David Strathairn
By Calum Cooper
I must confess, prior to my screening of “Where the Crawdads Sing” (2022), I didn’t know what a crawdad was. Turns out they’re a form of crayfish. Supposedly the title comes from an expression about being able to hear impossible, beautiful sounds – such as crawdads singing – when alone in the midst of nature.
It’s a lovely sentiment, and it compliments the setup. Daisy Edgar-Jones plays Catherine Danielle Clark, aka Kya. She is an ostracised young woman who lives in the marshlands, outside a judgemental town in 1960s North Carolina. She has been self-sufficient for nearly all her life, having been abandoned by her abusive father and other family. The townsfolk frequently scorn her, referring to her as “The Marsh Girl”.
Kya’s life unravels when she is accused of murdering the town’s star quarterback. The evidence is circumstantial, but her reputation will make for a tense trial. As she stands accused, we’re taken through her life story so that we may understand the events leading up to the trial. All the while, the question of her guilt lingers.
The marketing for “Where the Crawdads Sing” suggests a dark, mysterious narrative, something akin to Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl” (2014). But the final product is more like a Nicholas Sparks movie. It’s far more concerned with binary portrayals of good and bad, presenting them as overly whimsical or toxic respectively. It’s a promising concept that translates into a frustrating experience of tonal incoherence.
Serving as the connecting tissue is the trial, which joins the present timeline with the past timeline. The latter primarily details Kya’s backstory. However, the breadcrumbs that would point towards Kya’s guilt or innocence are only loosely spread. The film is more occupied with Kya’s love life. Kya has two relationships – one with the kind but distant Tate (Taylor John Smith), and another with the handsome but laddish Chase (Harris Dickinson) – which take up the majority of the two hour runtime. They juxtapose the film’s mystery drama genre and drag out the pacing by taking attention away from the central question: is Kya innocent or guilty?
These moments are best described as whimsically bloated, complete with sunny colour palettes, corny declarations of love, and music so saccharine that the instruments must be made of literal heart strings. Meanwhile, other scenes, such as the trial and early moments of traumatising abuse inflicted by Kya’s father, are coated with an uncomfortable intensity that feels like it’s from another film. It’s a puzzlingly inconsistent creative choice that the film’s dedication to romantic sequences only further highlights.
The marketing for “Where the Crawdads Sing” suggests a dark, mysterious narrative, something akin to Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl” (2014). But the final product is more like a Nicholas Sparks movie.
Adding to this is the rather binary approach to its portrayals of good and bad. Kya has sympathetic characteristics, but she’s rather two dimensional. She’s an outcast who’s stubbornly archetypal, while the characters around her are all either fully supportive or fully dismissive, such as the blandly kind shop owners Jumpin’ and Mabel (Sterling Macer Jr. and Michael Hyatt respectively). Any attempt at greyness, such as in a moment with Tate when confronted by Kya, lacks the depth of the marshlands around them.
That being said, there are some great things woven into the film’s fabric. Daisy Edgar-Jones is the definition of an up-and-coming talent. Look no further than “Normal People” (2020) or “Fresh” (2022) to see more of her incredible range. While there’s a seeming disregard for how the lifestyle of a swamp dweller would reflect in its inhabitant – Kya looks as if she’s getting ready for a perfume commercial in most scenes – Edgar-Jones nonetheless does a lot with what she’s given. She imbues the role with an empathetic magnetism that the script alone doesn’t. Young Jojo Regina as a young Kya also brings a compelling performance.
Polly Morgan’s cinematography is also very picturesque. Although the flowing long shots and expressive close ups probably embolden the tonal problems, it is still aesthetically pleasing. And the direction from Olivia Newman has an individual sturdiness that may not translate to the collective, but is nevertheless still present. Her direction heightens the anti-patriarchal themes of the story, championing empathy while shunning prejudice and manipulation. It’s a noble effort and, with a better script, Newman could comfortably turn in a future film as good as her debut, the underrated “First Match” (2018).
I can see a version of “Where the Crawdads Sing” that would’ve really vibed with me. But it tries to be two things simultaneously, and ends up not being particularly good at either. It lacks nuance or consistency, but it has decent morals at its core. There may be something here for those who want fluffy romances with the occasional twist. You won’t hear any Crawdads singing, but, with the wrong audience, you may hear them snoring.
“Where the Crawdads Sing” is in cinemas July 15th (USA) & July 22nd (UK)