‘Where The Crawdads Sing’ review: Overblown and tedious Southern drama

If you walk into “Where The Crawdads Sing” looking for a nice animated movie about a shellfish choir, you’ll be sorely disappointed.

movie review

Running time: 125 minutes. Rated PG-13 (sexual content and some violence including a sexual assault.) In theaters.

No, the sappy film is about a beautiful woman who lives in a marsh. And don’t you forget it! Based on controversial author Delia Owens’ popular novel, when the dialogue isn’t sanitizing abuse and rape, it’s waxing poetic about sea creatures, grass and owls. 

Long stretches of floral language is OK in a book. Onscreen, however, it’s pretentious. A slog in a bog.

Sure, we always love to see Daisy Edgar-Jones, the talented British actress who hit it big with the brilliant miniseries “Normal People.” But, unlike that layered show, “Crawdads” gives her nothing to chew on except a Southern accent.

We first meet her character Kya as she is arrested for the murder of a man named Chase, who fell to his death from a watchtower. To explain what happened she tells her lawyer, an Atticus Finch-type played by David Strathairn, her overly literary life story.

Daisy Edgar-Jones plays Kya, who townsfolk call “the marsh girl,” in “Where The Crawdad Sings.”
©Sony Pictures/Courtesy Everett

Little Kya (Jojo Regina) lives in a cabin far from a North Carolina town — you gotta use a boat to get anywhere — with her mom, siblings and a cruel father in the 1950s. When they gradually all run from their dangerous situation, including no-good pop, she’s left to fend for herself. 

Grown up and gorgeous, she is shunned by the town like Hester Prynne and derisively called “marsh girl.” North Carolina, we learn, is a bizarro state in which beautiful, well-dressed people are hated. But not by Kya’s freakishly kind childhood friend named Tate (Taylor John Smith), who starts wooing her. It’s a match made in marshland: She’s obsessed with scallops and he wants to be a biologist.  

Men boat up to Kya’s house in the middle of the night as if auditioning for an aquatic “Say Anything,” and next in line is Chase (Harris Dickinson), a jerk. 

Her choice is obvious, but it takes some 90 minutes of overripe dialogue to get there.

Tate (Taylor John Smith) and Kya (Daisy Edgar-Jones) are smitten.
Tate (Taylor John Smith) and Kya (Daisy Edgar-Jones) are smitten.
Sony Pictures

Tate and Chase are crudely drawn characters on screen — an angel and devil — and we never fully embrace either. Because the story is about a woman’s painful struggle, the film is afraid of ever becoming fully romantic. The only thing Kya, a keen artist, is in love with is painting pictures of snails.

Strange, though, is how hesitant director Olivia Newman is with depictions of violence. Every deplorable slap and punch is safely presented, and are overcome with unbelievable ease. Early in the movie, one of Kya’s brothers — a little boy — walks out of the house having just been pummeled by their dad. Bruised, bloodied and blasé, his casual demeanor suggests he just left the candy store.

Mabel (Michael Hyatt) runs a local shop and helps Kya.
Mabel (Michael Hyatt) runs a local shop and helps Kya.
Sony Pictures

Also bothersome are the characters Mabel (Michael Hyatt) and Jumpin’ (Sterling Macer Jr.), flatly-written black shop owners who exist solely to console and protect Kya and have no other defining detail or characteristics.  

Providing a hint of redemption is Edgar-Jones, a naturally vulnerable actress who can turn the shallowest of material into something deep. We like her Kya and are with her every step of the way, even though at over two hours there about fifty steps too many. 

After an interminable wind-up (more sweeping shots of egrets!), the bombshell ending is rewarding.

Yet, I suspect it’s a lot more fun to reach on a Kindle.

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