Before becoming a New York Times best-selling novelist, Delia Owens was a zoologist, having written three non-fiction books with her former husband, Mark Owens.
Her Where the Crawdads Sing is about loneliness, isolation, prejudice and the forces of nature – concepts that are, admittedly, elusive to express cinematically.
Abandoned by her mother, young Catherine Danielle Clark (Daisy Edgar-Jones) – a.k.a. Kya – watched helplessly as each of her older siblings ran away from their abusive/alcoholic father who, when he died, left vulnerable Kya alone and penniless near Barkley Cove in the North Carolina marshland.
Intuitively smart and infinitely resourceful, she manages to survive on her own, consoled and protected by kindly Black shopkeepers Jumpin’ (Sterling Macer Jr.) and Mabel (Michael Hyatt), who buy the fresh mussels she digs up before dawn.
Fascinated by the wetlands wildlife around her, Kya collects and catalogues feathers and shells, drawing intricate depictions of the birds, bugs and plants. Derisively dubbed ‘marsh girl’ and shunned at school, she can neither read nor write until gentle Tate (Taylor John Smith) teaches her these basic skills.
As Kya and Tate grow up, they’re naturally attracted to one another. But he’s determined to study biology at Chapel Hill, leaving Kya heartbroken but inspired to turn her naturalist drawings into a book.
In Tate’s absence, shy, reclusive Kya is clandestinely courted by Chase (Harris Dickinson), who humiliates her with his duplicity. So when Chase is found dead, Kya is accused of murder. But as her lawyer (David Strathairn) proves in court, she has the perfect alibi: when Chase died, she was out-of-town, meeting with her publisher.
It’s a courtroom drama/murder mystery/ coming-of-age saga/ romance. Unfortunately, as adapted by Luci Alibar, directed by Olivia Newman, photographed by Polly Morgan and produced by Reese Witherspoon, it’s become disappointingly banal, evoking memories of sappy Nicholas Sparks’ novels – with an original song “Carolina,” written and performed by Taylor Swift.
On the Granger Gauge of 1 to 10, Where the Crawdads Sing is a sincere-but-slogging, sentimental 6, playing in theaters.