For all the media we consume through streaming and the few time people go to the movies, one art form shows no signs of slowing down; the world of books. This includes your local mom and pop bookstore, the somehow mega and also dying Barnes and Noble, and the multitude of book clubs, book insta, and book tok social media groups. Even if you are a miniscule part of any of these groups then best chances are you have encountered Delia Owens’ 2018 best seller Where the Crawdads Sing. Now if you aren’t familiar with the book world it becomes quite humorous that a book that has sold over twelve million copies and spent over one hundred and fifty weeks on the best seller list can also go completely unnoticed. It was not until Reese Witherspoon’s book club that it even entered the mega sphere and while a film adaptation seemed inevitable it wasn’t until Taylor Swift’s recorded song for the movie that allowed the film to be known by the average moviegoer. The irony being that this is the perfect adult summer popcorn film for those looking to escape minions and gods of thunder. Directed with great love and admiration Olivia Newman had the difficult task of adapting Owens’ book, which already feels outdated, and with the help of script writer Lucy Alibar’s they try to make it feel relevant amongst its controversy. Like most best sellers to screen, the films has succeed in many and stumbled in some. Where the Crawdads Sing is as thirsty as it is misguided. It is a film that you find yourself immersed in for the whole ride even if there is not a complete sense of fulfillment. It is also an extremely white film made particularly for white people. Nonetheless Crawdads is a reminder that best sellers rarely mean much to the film world, but when handled by a filmmaking crew with the utmost respect you end up with a pretty great time at the movies.
Crawdads is the kind of film that knows its best attributes and isn’t afraid to show them off. Daisy Edgar-Jones one of the best new actress working today kicks off the film with her narration that lets you know exactly the kind of melodramatic film this will be. Using lines exactly from the book Edgar Jones’ Kya, a young girl from the North Carolina marsh is everything a narrator of this genre should be. An uneducated but intelligent beyond her years survivor. Kya has survived through one of the toughest things a child should never have to face; abandonment. Her mother (Ahna O’ Reilly) leaves after years of physical abuse from Kya’s father (an always reliant Garret Dillahunt) , and young Kya (played by Jojo Regina for her child version) is also left by her several brothers and sisters (and eventually father) and forced to defend herself against not just the marsh, but the cruel people of the nearby town who have already made their judgements on her since she is just the strange and dangerous “marsh girl.” The film relies heavily on the notion that prejudice comes from those with privilege, and while the film keeps repeating this idea it never fully explains their reasoning behind their dislike for Kya and her family. Maybe just them living on the outskirts is enough to make the film’s point but when nearly every character proclaims their hatred towards the marsh girl it becomes a little repetitive and almost makes the viewer feel like they missed something. But even as the film quickly pushes along it becomes clear somebody must eventually take a liking to Kya. This is not just because the story is clearly heading this way, but also because for all the ridicule Kya receives for her appearance its quite comical when Daisy Edgar-Jones is clearly the most beautiful and articulate woman to walk onto the film’s frames.
The hatred that Kya receives from the townspeople is not her only problem, like most young women her age she must deal with the awful and cruel world of men. After learning to manage her abusive alcoholic father her next chapter in dealing with men comes in the form of Tate Walker. Tate (Taylor John Smith) is instantly smitten by Kya (as most young men are in these kinds of stories) he sees both the curiosity of Kya’s innocence as well as her highly intellectual maturity. Even for a film that borders the line of trashy romance novel the connection Kya has with Tate is quite endearing which makes it harder when the marsh continues to find a way to keep their worlds separate. Tate for all his mistakes still shows a world to Kya that is both kinder and larger than what she feels forced into. This only makes it more difficult when Tate is quickly replaced with the hot headed playboy Chase Andrews (Harris Dickinson doing everything he can to scare any young girl into falling for the “bad boy”). Andrews for all his unnerving charm also brings on the uncomfortable and all too real kink of some men wanting to power over the innocent but naïve “strange girl” and allow themselves to dictate what she can or cannot do. The film is not a cautionary tale but Chase Andrews is every woman’s worst nightmare regardless of what world or status they come from. Dickinson and Edgar-Jones create some truly uncomfortable but memorable moments that work best because they are driven by two great young talents.
For anyone who has read the book, all of this shouldn’t be surprising, but more than likely they will be wondering if the film does a great job at handling the big mystery. After all plot is what drives fiction books and is what the average filmgoer looks at most when seeing films like these. The film and Alibar’s script do a better job at handling the mystery in both allowing it to be something that hovers over the entire film, but never feels like its main reliance. There is a murder and yes Kya is the main suspect, but even when the film turns into a court room movie featuring the always phenomenal David Strathairn it does so in the service of the character of Kya who continuously must fight for herself against all the obstacles everyone has set up for her long before she ever was placed into police custody. This is also the reason that when the film is focused on larger issues beyond Kya it stumbles in several ways. One of them is due to the already uncomfortable source material of Owens using a poorly developed Black couple as nothing more than a service to an already well written white lead. Two store owners named Mabel (Michael Hyatt) and Jumpin’ (Sterling Macer Jr.) are there to be service to Kya but thankfully the actors do more than what is ever given to them. A film so focused on a white woman persecuted does not do enough to fully acknowledge the hatred this loving couple has faced for years long before Kya ever needed help. With limited screen time and hardly any lines of memorable dialogue the film clearly has other ideas in mind, which makes it all the more apparent that it doesn’t know how to articulate every cultural idea it is bringing awareness to. In other words Mabel and Jumpin’ deserve a lot better.
As the film goes along its already planned out journey it hits some notes that are actually quite surprising (again if you haven’t read the book which this critic thankfully hasn’t). Credit to any film that can still pull out a twist that was right under your nose and also not be a pretentious prick about it. Learning things in real time with Kya works favors for the film since again Edgar-Jones is the best thing about the film and her facial reactions are worth the price of admission alone. It is the kind of film you want to see with a crowd because even if films like this are rediscovering their audience it is nice to share that experience especially when it delivers some surprising moments. Crawdads is also the kind of film that becomes so easy to get swept up in that even in moments of lesser filmmaking quality (although it wouldn’t be an issue if female run films could actually acquire a big budget) there is never a doubt of the love that was put into this film. In a time where Marvel and Sony dish out gigantic budgets to deliver absolute trash with zero accountability it is nice to see a filmmaking team use every bit they are given even when they clearly deserved more. Crawdads is the kind of film that will work even better on repeat viewing if not just for a chance to escape for two hours. Yes it will become your mom’s favorite movie of the year but you know what she deserves the world too, and the film (if a success) can be a reminder that there is still an audience for adult driven dramas even if they must find ways to excel past Crawdads’ faults. So yea eventually you will find that pesky place where the crawdads sing and it might not hit every note right, but you will quickly find yourself grateful for every moment you got to spend with the wonderful marsh girl.
WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING IS IN THEATERS EVERYWHERE JULY 15