A stupendously popular source novel. A theme song by Taylor Swift. Reese Witherspoon as producer. And even a tantalizing, life-imitates-art news headline surfacing recently.
Clearly, few movies open with as much going for them as “Where the Crawdads Sing,” directed by Olivia Newman from Delia Owens’ story of an abandoned girl who grows up alone in the North Carolina marshes and finds herself accused of murder.
But all the buzz and talent around a tale that’s sold more than 12 million copies can’t thoroughly mask a sometimes corny, often clunky script, even if most of the lines are delivered by Daisy Edgar-Jones, whose poignant, grounded lead performance is the distinguishing highlight of the enterprise.
With a face wise beyond her years and a sense that thoughts more important than what she’s saying are lurking behind her darting eyes, Edgar-Jones is a real find. It’s unfortunate, though, that we’re not hearing much of those thoughts. Though brief lines from the novel are sometimes uttered in Kya’s voice on the soundtrack, one often gets the sense they’ll mean a lot more to veterans of the novel. For the rest of us, there’s that guess-you-had-to-read-it feeling.
The story, which takes place in the late ‘60s in fictional Barkley Cove, begins with the discovery of a body under a high water tower. The dead man, Chase Andrews, former town quarterback, is known, but not the motive. Who could have done this? Suspicion immediately falls on Kya, whom locals know as the mysterious Marsh Girl.
One imagines the book does a better job of explaining the background behind this rush to judgment. In any case, Kya, who has never been in trouble with the law, ends up awaiting trial. She’s lucky to have Tom Milton, a gentlemanly, kindhearted lawyer, on her side -- as would we all, given he’s played by David Strathairn. He tells her she’ll be judged by a jury of 12 people who don’t know her. In order to defend her, HE must get to know her.
And so the flashbacks begin. Back in 1953, Kya as a little girl (Jojo Regina) is living in her home by the marsh with a loving mother and a drunk, abusive father. One day, her battered mother packs up and leaves.
Her siblings leave too, but Kya stays, learning how to live with her dad and avoid his wrath, mostly. Hungry and with no shoes, she dons an old skirt one day and heads to the school, hoping to get a square meal, but is teased mercilessly and never returns. A letter one day arrives from her mother, but the girl can’t read and her enraged father burns it.
In another flashback, this time in 1962, we see Kya (now Edgar-Jones) living on her own, slowly connecting with a handsome young man named Tate (Taylor John Smith) over a mutual love of feathers. Soon, he offers to teach her to read and write. “I didn’t know words could hold so much,” she tells him. He brings her books, and slowly, they fall in love. Smith and Edgar-Jones have an appealing chemistry that, thankfully, cuts through the rather basic dialogue.
Tate, however, has another force pulling on him: college, and familial expectations. He leaves but promises to be back in a month, where they will watch July 4 fireworks on the beach together. He doesn’t show. She is devastated.
Eventually Kya meets another interested young man -- Chase (Harris Dickinson.) Yes, THAT Chase. He is handsome, like Tate, and they become involved, even though she’s wary of a selfish, sinister side that will become ever more apparent.
The crux of the tale, though, centers on the trial, and again, despite the presence of the always-welcome Strathairn, it feels rather like a rushed TV episode, with a cartoonishly nasty prosecutor referring to Kya’s “weakness of character,” as if to explain why she’d murder a man.
Readers of the novel will know there’s a late twist in the plot, and we’ll just warn that if you want to save the surprise, don’t read the recent news stories surfacing about author Owens and her potential involvement in issues predating the 2018 novel.
Do, however, listen to the haunting Swift song over the closing credits, created with instruments from the era of the film, and telling the story beautifully. As Kya says, sometimes words CAN hold so much.
“Where the Crawdads Sing,” a Sony Pictures Entertainment release, has been rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America “for sexual content and some violence including a sexual assault.” Running time: 125 minutes. Two stars out of four.
MPAA definition of PG-13: Parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.