Sometimes I wonder whether there’s anything left to American culture aside from rampant eclecticism. Where the Crawdads Sing, the big-screen adaptation of a best-selling novel by Delia Owens, reaches theaters as an amalgam of storylines and genre gestures.
In its early going, the movie resembles a Nicholas Sparks romance between an isolated girl and a well-meaning young man. At other times, the movie offers a lyrical appreciation of the North Carolina marshland where much of the story takes place. At still other times, Crawdads relies on a woman's determination to secure her place in the world.
If all that weren’t enough, the story is interspersed with a courtroom drama in which a country lawyer sheds his retirement to defend the main character in a murder trial that grips the fictional town of Barkley Cove, N.C.
To work at all, the movie requires an actress who can convey the independence and natural intelligence of its main character.
Daisy Edgar-Jones more than passes the test: She plays Kya, a young woman who lives alone in the marshlands just outside of town. Edgar-Jones captures the wariness and guile of a woman who has grown accustomed to reading nature’s tea leaves. Kya's a natural naturalist.
Abandoned by her mother, father, and siblings, Kya relies on the marsh to teach her how to survive in the world as she finds it during the 1950s and 60s.
Director Olivia Newman presents the scenes between Kya and her first love Tate (Taylor John Smith) in too-good-to-be-true territory until Tate goes off to college and breaks his promise to return to Kya.
Time passes and Kya takes up with Chase (Harris Dickinson), a young man who looks a lot like Tate but who once was a star high school football player. He regards himself as a town hotshot. Not surprisingly, he's a jerk.
Kya narrates the movie, early on telling her story to her attorney (a sympathetic David Strathairn). She continues narrating without any specified listener other than the film’s audience.
With help from cinematographer Polly Morgan, Newman conveys an appreciation for the swamplands, the visual equivalent of the observant quality that helped give Owens’s novel its weight.
Aside from the two men in Kya’s life, supporting roles include Garret Dillahunt as Kya’s abusive father and a Black couple (Sterling Macer Jr. and Michael Hyatt) who provide Kya with clothes. She trades the muscles that she harvests for grits and other staples.
Though set during the days of segregation, the movie keeps racial issues at arm's length, preferring to show how Kya — whom the townsfolk derisively refer to as Marsh Girl — develops as a first-rate illustrator and chronicler of the marsh life that she observes.
Shifts between courtroom scenes and various chapters in Kya’s life burden the movie. Just as we're getting into one part of the movie, another pops up.
Produced by Reese Witherspoon, who has taken a major interest in the work of women filmmakers and in women’s subjects, the film should satisfy devotees of the novel
But unlike its celebrated marshlands, the movie can come across as dry, more a recitation of the novel's events than a deeply felt drama.
Credit Edgar-Jones for carrying the story through its various stages, but Crawdad’s use of narration provides a clue as to why the movie doesn’t always work: Where the Crawdads Sing is more a story told than one that lives, breathes and finds its own life.