But the result of its luscious premise is a surprisingly inert film. Director Olivia Newman, working from a script by Lucy Alibar, swings without much momentum between a young woman’s murder trial and memories of her turbulent childhood in 1950s and 1960s North Carolina. (Alibar also wrote “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” which “Where the Crawdads Sing” sounds a bit like the story of an ingenious little girl’s survival in a squalid, swampy setting.)
It’s so loaded with intrigue that it ends up feeling superficial, rendering major reveals like rushed afterthoughts. For a film about a brave woman who grew up in the wild, living by her own rules, “Where the Crawdads Sing” is exceptionally lukewarm and restrained. And aside from the multi-layered performance of Daisy Edgar-Jones as the central character, the characters never evolve beyond a basic trait or two.
We begin in October 1969 in the swamps of fictional Barkley Cove, North Carolina, where two boys stumble upon a corpse lying in the mud. It turns out to be Chase Andrews, a popular big fish in this small island pond. And Edgar-Jones’ Kya, with whom he had an unlikely romantic entanglement, becomes the prime suspect. She’s an easy target, having long been ostracized and reviled as The Marsh Girl – or when the townspeople feel particularly mocking of her, That Marsh Girl. Flashbacks reveal the abuse she and her family suffered from her unstable, alcoholic father (Garret Dillahunt, heartbreaking in just a few scenes), and the subsequent abandonment she endured as everyone left her. , one by one, to fend for herself… starting with her mother. Those lively early sections are the most emotionally powerful, with Jojo Regina giving an impressive and demanding performance in her first major film role as eight-year-old Kya.
As she grows into her teens and early twenties and Edgar-Jones takes over, two very different young men shape her formative years. There’s the too good to be true Tate (Taylor John Smith), a childhood friend who teaches him to read and write and becomes his first love. (“There was something about that boy that eased the tension in my chest,” Kya recounts, one of many clumsy examples of Owens’s words being transferred from page to page.) And later there’s the arrogant and intimidating Chase (Harris Dickinson), who is obviously bad news all along, something the reclusive Kya is unable to acknowledge.