One senses that the novel of the same name on which WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING possessed some lovely prose. Certainly, when the narration includes lines from the book, there is the dark poetic ring of classic Southern Gothic reverberating from the musings on death intoned by the adult version of Kya (Daisy Edgar-Jones). Whatever philosophical gravitas that author Delia Owens may have achieved in this murder mystery told in flashback, however, whatever delicacy of style it may have contained, is mostly lost here. Aside from two fine performances by Edgar-Jones and David Strathairn as the retired lawyer who returns to the practice of law when Kya is charged with the murder of a member of the local gentry, it is a lifeless thing, untroubled by the energy of passion that is a necessary component to a story such as this.
Not for lack of trying. We are told often and at length about Kya’s abiding love for the North Carolina marshes and swamps where she has found refuge from the jeering of the local townsfolk of Barkley Cove. Those environs are filmed to their best advantage, though without any originality or inkling of inspiration. The same can be said of the two young men who eventually find their way into Kya’s life. The stalwart Tate (Taylor John Smith) who as a child witnesses the severity of abuse doled out by Kya’s father (Garret Dillahunt), and Chase (Harris Dickinson), the murder victim who wooed Kya far from the prying eyes of the locals.
Kya, AKA the Marsh Girl, was abandoned by her family, one by one, before she was 10. Left to fend for herself in those North Carolina marshes of the 1950s, she was ridiculed or ignored by the nearby, and so-called respectable, townsfolk. Without the care of the African-American couple who ran the local gas-and-bait shop, she would have been entirely alone. But with the money brought in by their purchase of the shellfish Kya digs at dawn, and despite the brutality of her childhood, she grows into a lovely, if wary, young woman full of curiosity for and love of her surroundings.
With only one day of schooling to her name (she left after the other children made fun of her), she is illiterate until Tate, the cute and college-bound son of a shrimper, befriends her, wooing her with reading lessons, feathers and spark plugs. He also encourages her artwork that details the local flora and fauna with exquisite detail. When he, too, abandons Kya, and without a word, she eventually turns to Chase, the scion of one of the town’s best-heeled families, only to once again be disappointed.
There is a sub-genre of chick lit that devotes itself to the many ways that the male of the human species disappoints the female. This is a prime example of same, stripped of whatever else the novel may have brought to bear on the question. Even the ci-mentioned lawyer, Tom Milton, assures the child Kya that she has as much right to be in school as the well-dressed children who cause her to flee in tears. To be fair, though, he was right, even if he didn’t take into consideration the hazing to which the children wearing shoes and non-ragged clothes would subject Kya. And it’s Mabel (Michael Hyatt), the distaff member of the grocer couple, who quotes scripture to her husband, Jumpin’ (Sterling Macer Jr.), in order for him to agree to do what they can for a white child in the mid-century American south.
Jones gives a performance that is far more interesting than the film in which she finds herself. There is both longing and anger, naivety and intelligence. She is playing against little more than cardboard cut-outs of characters written so thinly that the are all by translucent. Even Milton, an ersatz Atticus Finch, is redeemed only by Strathairn’s innate warmth and humanity suggesting so much more than the cliché white suit and folksy southern drawl concealing a sharp, enlightened mind. The young men who awaken in Kya a need for companionship are as painfully trite as they are dull, speaking more to hormones than romance on her part to explain the attraction. The only flashes of genuine turbulence come in the depictions of Kya’s childhood, with Dillahunt’s character creating the most visceral moments in the film as a troubled man lashing out at random, and with the shattering effects of bullying during Kya’s one day at school.
The rest of the film, and this is the majority of it, the trial of the outsider that puts the townsfolk themselves on trial (of course), and the gradual unfolding of what really happened that fateful night, is inert. We are told by timeworn cues what we should feel, rather than being shown, thus does WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING violate that most basic tenet of cinema while also violating that most basic tenet of a mystery, being predictable.