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Nathan Weinbender reviews "Where the Crawdads Sing"

Where the Crawdads Sing has all the trappings of a salacious southern gothic: It’s got a distant but beautiful woman with a violent past, a small town buzzing with holier-than-thou hypocrites, a love triangle and even a murder trial. And yet the film exists in an imaginary and insultingly sanitized version of North Carolina in the 1950s and ’60s, and none of those seemingly sensationalistic elements generates any heat. No one even appears to sweat, despite getting all hot and bothered in swampy marshlands.

The film is based on a 2018 novel by Delia Owens, a publishing phenomenon that’s destined to be a fixture of summer book clubs for years to come. It’s about a young woman named Kya, who, as a child, lives in a house on a bog with a large family and an abusive, alcoholic father. One by one, her mother and her siblings flee, leaving Kya behind. Eventually her dad disappears, too, and she’s left to fend for herself. She doesn’t go to school, she never learns to read, and she supports herself by selling mussels to a country store in the nearby village, where she’s known derisively as Marsh Girl.

As an adult, Kya is played by Daisy Edgar-Jones, and she spends most of her days lovingly sketching the wildlife around her. That’s how she catches the attention of a pretty local boy named Tate (Taylor John Smith), who encourages her talents and teaches her the ABCs in more ways than one. When he goes off to college, Kya then falls for Chase (Harris Dickinson), another J. Crew model type with a dark side. Tate or Chase, Chase or Tate — how can Kya possibly decide between them? How can she tell them apart?

I nearly forgot about that murder trial, a narrative framing device that finds Kya indicted for Chase’s mysterious death and her Atticus Finch-lite lawyer (David Straithairn) urging the jury to put aside their preconceived notions of this feral swamp lady. We also get an epilogue that reveals a whole bunch of secrets, and while it could have registered as a moment of shock — maybe it did in the novel — it’s instead handled so clumsily and indifferently that it barely registers.

Where the Crawdads Sing is the second feature from director Olivia Newman, and she and her cinematographer Polly Morgan make the North Carolina wetlands look good, with all its rusty fishing boats and observation towers that go up and and up and up. Unfortunately, they’ve also been saddled with a predictable story that has been sanded down and streamlined into a soft-focus PG-13 drama. It’s one off-screen murder and a couple chaste love scenes away from being a Hallmark Channel movie.

If this movie version of Where the Crawdads Sing has any interest whatsoever, it’s in the central performance by Daisy Edgar-Jones. She is as convincing as it’s possible to be playing a woman who goes from illiterate backwoods hermit to published author, and I hope this movie does for her what the Twilight series did for Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson. Now that we know who she is, she can go on to bigger and better things.
Nathan Weinbender is a film critic and one of the regular co-hosts for Spokane Public Radio’s “Movies 101” heard Friday evenings at 6:30 here on KPBX.