Living in the marsh outskirts of her small town, Kya Clark grows into a self-sufficient outsider after her family gradually abandons their once-toxic home. Kya endures years of belittlement from the small town she inhabits, but she eventually finds solace in two men who she sparks relationships with. When one of the men is found dead, Kya becomes the central murder suspect in the young adult drama Where the Crawdads Sing.
Based on a controversial Delia Owens novel (the wormhole of troubling aspects centered around the book could make for a movie), Crawdads marks a change of pace for the big-screen marketplace. While young adult dramas once populated screens at a rampant rate, an overabundance of failed franchise starters (Mortal Instruments, Divergent and Beautiful Creatures) and the advent of streaming diminished the subgenre to its irrelevance.
Part YA drama, part Nicolas Sparks-esque romance, Crawdads charts an intriguing narrative pathway that bustles with promise. Unfortunately, the experience combusts into a maudlin melodrama – a shallow and overstuffed yarn that never connects on a human level.
I credit the Crawdads creative team for at least taking some risky swings at the plate. Kya’s journey through the rigid social standards of the 1960s presents a relevant canvas of division and suppressive mob mentalities. The material never fears dredging into the muck of traumatizing realities, boldly painting Kya’s coming of age journey as a trial by the fires of agonizing tragedies. Upcoming star Daisy Egar-Jones also provides a captivating center as the rugged “Marsh Girl.” Under her soft-spoken persona, the actress imbues conviction and moving vulnerabilities as she unearths the character’s pained history.
Any promise Where the Crawdads Sing boasts eventually evaporates in befuddling ways. The concept of Kya developing authorship over her life before discovering her voice as a painter should make for an inspirational odyssey. Instead, Crawdads flounders into a soap-opera love triangle of Twilight portions. Lucy Alilbar’s script adaptation paints every character beat in broad emotional strokes, a choice that awkwardly conveys romance with stilted heavy-handedness. Each attempt at romance swoons for moving sentiments before tripping into awkward foreplay and lackluster chemistry. I wish the film allowed Kya to explore her strengths outside the confines of her somewhat problematic relationships (both characters put her through challenging situations).
Crawdads is far too simplistic for its own good. When handling challenging themes, it’s hard to excuse a film that belabors itself in inauthentic melodrama. None of the reflective character moments or stirring dramatic scenes register past Hallmark-level dimension. Olivia Newman’s flat direction does not help matters. She and Cinematographer Polly Morgan portray the gritty marsh as an over-lit, atmosphere-free landscape surrounded by unappealing CGI backdrops.
The overwrought experience concludes with a woefully executed twist ending. A sudden revelation changes the film’s context into a far murkier experience despite the film’s sentimental approach. Reminiscent of the Nicholas Sparks romps this film embodies, the narrative bellyflops as it tries to provide a roaring crescendo. This conclusion looks even worse in hindsight when considering the author’s questionable past. Ultimately, it does not send the most empowering of messages to its core audience.
Judging Where the Crawdads Sing without reading the source material leaves me unsure of where the film went wrong. Whether it’s the result of a flat adaptation or a faulty story destined to fail, Crawdads drowns under its bloated ambitions.
Where the Crawdads Sing is now playing in theaters.
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