Film & TV

Film Review: ‘Where The Crawdads Sing’: A Faithful Adaptation of the Mammoth Best-Seller

BY Michael Clark TIMEJuly 16, 2022 PRINT

 PG-13 | 2h 5min | DramaCrime, Thriller | 15 July 2022 (USA)

A movie one might expect to see released in the late fall awards-bait season, “Where the Crawdads Sing” [WTCS] is nonetheless dropping in mid-summer where superhero, animation, and action fare rule the multiplexes.

However, if the larger-than-expected audience at the pre-release screening of this film is any kind of indicator, there are a whole bunch of people looking for something more cerebral and lacking in special effects, chase scenes, and family-friendly bathroom humor.

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Taylor John Smith as Tate Walker and Daisy Edgar-Jones as Catherine “Kya” Clark in “Where the Crawdads Sing.” (Columbia Pictures)

At various points recalling elements of “Sling Blade,” “Winter’s Bone,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and the selected works of William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, and Flannery O’Connor, “WTCS” is the very definition of classic Southern Gothic.

Based on the novel of the same name by Delia Owens (which spent a staggering 150 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list), the screenplay was penned by Floridian Lucy Alibar who co-wrote the criminally underrated (and tonally similar) “Beasts of the Southern Wild.”

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Daisy Edgar-Jones as Catherine “Kya” Clark in “Where the Crawdads Sing.” (Columbia Pictures)

The Marsh Girl

Shot entirely in Louisiana, “WTCS” is set in the fictional North Carolina enclave of Barkley Cove and opens in 1969 with two young boys discovering a dead body at the base of a fire watch tower. The deceased is Chase Andrews (Harris Dickinson), the local spoiled rich kid and high school football hero who recently broke up with Catherine “Kya” Clark (Daisy Edgar-Jones in a breakout performance), a.k.a. the “Marsh Girl.”

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Harris Dickinson as Chase Andrews in “Where the Crawdads Sing.” (Columbia Pictures)

Because of her status as a mysterious outlier and a missing piece of gifted jewelry Chase was wearing on the night of his death, the sheriff apprehends Kya and she is charged with first degree murder. In jail, she is visited by the avuncular Tom Milton (David Strathairn), a retired defense attorney cut directly from the Atticus Finch cloth. She slowly opens up to him and provides details of her nightmare childhood.

Kya received her insulting and dubious nickname from the snooty town folk because she lives in a tin roof hovel on the water’s edge. She was first abandoned by her battered mother and soon thereafter, her older siblings due to the relentless abuse at the hands of their volatile alcoholic father Pa (Garret Dillahunt). The preteen Kya (Jojo Regina) is largely able to avoid Pa who eventually splits, leaving her to fend for herself which she does surprisingly well.

Kya’s only allies for the next 15-plus years are a married couple (Michael Hyatt and Sterling Mercer, Jr.), the owners of a small grocery store and Tate Walker (Taylor John Smith), her smitten childhood friend who teaches her how to read and write. This eventually leads to romance between the pair which doesn’t go in the direction Kya had hoped.

Mostly out of loneliness and Chase’s persistent, deceptive, alter-ego charm and promises of a future idyllic marriage, the rebounding Kya succumbs to his advances. Soon recognizing Chase is a pathological liar and just another version of her father, she ends the relationship and that is not well received on his part.

Risky Storytelling Techniques

Presenting any movie with an out of sequence narrative is always a dicey proposition, and the decision by Alibar and sophomore feature director Olivia Newman to toss in flashbacks and voice-over narration on top of it only increases the odds of failure.

Amazingly, not only do the filmmakers (which include co-producer Reese Witherspoon) avoid disaster, they keep the audience on the edge of their seats right up to the last few minutes of the film.

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Daisy Edgar-Jones as Catherine “Kya” Clark and David Strathairn as attorney Tom Milton in “Where the Crawdads Sing.” (Columbia Pictures)

Although it has nothing in common content-wise with “Pulp Fiction” and “Memento,” “WTCS,” follows a similar labyrinthine path which was perfect for the material. Furthermore, had any of these movies been presented in chronological order, nothing would have worked.

Credit also needs to be lavished on cinematographer Polly Morgan (“A Quiet Place Part II,” the upcoming “The Woman King”) and veteran Oscar-winning composer Mychael Danna (“Life of Pi”), each at the top of their game adding subtle yet substantial texture and depth. Although it’s far too early in the year to firmly predict, the chances are high that each will be in the running for Oscar consideration next February.

Don’t be surprised if Taylor Swift’s haunting closing theme song (“Carolina”) receives equally heavy end-of-year industry awards-season attention.

In the Interest of Full Disclosure

For those of you among the 12 million people who bought the novel, I can’t guarantee you’ll love or even like the movie version, but I can assure you one thing: It is very faithful as film adaptations go. If you have not read the book (like me), don’t go to Wikipedia.com to find out the plot details until after watching the movie; it will totally spoil everything.

On the ride home with a (female) friend after watching the movie, we debated (in a good way) the finer points and twists of the story and each of us came to different, though not radically opposed, conclusions, and even better, we were able to agree neither of us was wrong. This is the best compliment I can give to any movie; particularly in a legal courtroom thriller where the outcome is not open-ended.

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Daisy Edgar-Jones as Catherine “Kya” Clark in “Where the Crawdads Sing.” (Columbia Pictures)

A Sneaky Think-Piece

“WTCS” doesn’t preach, dictate or spoon-feed the audience a particular position or provide commentary regarding the law or morality. It makes you think, come to your own conclusions, and puts you in the body, mind, heart, and soul of a character most of us couldn’t fathom being, much less temporarily inhabiting.

Whatever side of the argument you eventually land (and you might not ever reach that point), it will make you more attune to the human condition and aware of those in different boats than you might have ever imagined.

‘Where The Crawdads Sing’
Director: Olivia Newman
Stars: Daisy Edgar-Jones, Taylor John Smith, Harris Dickinson, David Strathairn
Running Time: 2 hours, 5 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Release Date: July 15, 2022
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Originally from Washington, D.C., Michael Clark has provided film content to over 30 print and online media outlets. He co-founded the Atlanta Film Critics Circle in 2017 and is a weekly contributor to the Shannon Burke Show on FloridaManRadio.com. Since 1995, Mr. Clark has written over 4,000 movie reviews and film-related articles. He favors dark comedy, thrillers, and documentaries.
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