Submerged in the muggy waters of the North Carolina marsh – which per the voiceover, is not a swamp – British actress Daisy Edgar-Jones tries to save “Where the Crawdads Sing,” the film adaption of Delia Owens’ best-selling novel, from drowning in its own bland mediocrity.
Edgar-Jones, who not long ago dazzled as one of the leads in the Irish drama series “Normal People,” is condemned to a one-note performance of exasperated suffering and unconvincing innocence as Kya, otherwise known as “The Marsh Girl,” a young woman abandoned by her entire family as a child and undeservingly judged by the surrounding community.
Enamored with nature, she can’t read or write, but she can draw every life form around her. Alone, she fishes and fends for herself with a little help from a Black couple, Jumpin’ (Sterling Macer Jr.) and Mabel (Michael Hyatt), who own a local store. Their condition of oppression in this time period (the 1950s and ’60s) goes mostly unaddressed other than to serve Kya’s journey, signaling that they understand her pain over being treated differently.
The timeline of her continued tragedy splits between her rose-colored days as a teenager falling in love with Tate (Taylor John Smith, “Blacklight”), a boy who encourages her talent, and her trial for the murder of another young man with whom she was romantically involved, Chase (Harris Dickinson, “Beach Rats”). The always reliable David Strathairn is her compassionate attorney.
Dickinson, another actor with more noteworthy chapters in his still burgeoning career, plays a bro-type guy who embodies the violent implementation of patriarchal ideologies prevalent at the time as accepted standard. Together, Chase and Tate represent an obvious binary of manhood in their most extreme manifestations. For his part, Kya’s brother Jodie (Logan Macrae) gets off easy when he re-enters her adult life after leaving her behind in childhood.
Scenes of heartbreak, as Tate disappears from Kya’s life and later when Chase unleashes his true colors, run awkwardly long, as if desperate to awaken in the viewer a semblance of emotion. But their attempts at fabricating soul-stirring moments fall short of their intent repeatedly, adding to the hackneyed oversimplification of Kya’s state of mind.
To the story’s credit, the heroine’s arc features the professional goal of publishing her drawings and observations on insects, birds and sea creatures in her area. That brings us to the crawdads in the title (the local name for crayfish) and their singing, which refer to an unspecified place deep in this ecosystem where Kya’s mother once told her to find refuge.
Notably, women hold most key creative positions in “Crawdads,” with director Olivia Newman at the helm. Following her well-received debut “First Match,” Newman hits a sophomore slump with this literary reinterpretation, where the performances in general renounce nuance for theatricality and most storytelling decisions unfurl like a subpar pastiche of vague components we’ve seen and heard plenty of times before.
Occasionally, the sun, a noble entity adorning even the most by-the-numbers frames, lends cinematographer Polly Morgan (“A Quiet Place Part II”) its magic-hour glow for a handful of shots that briefly liberate us from the mostly insipid filmmaking on display. Scenes under a Spanish moss tree display a magically bright sheen that for an instant imbues the lovers’ encounters with an idyllic patina. Sadly, there’s little else to discuss in terms of craft accomplishments.
Production value elsewhere seems proficient in the way that some made-for-TV movies are, almost as if the studio knew that the book’s preexisting fanbase will come see the film no matter how it looks, and thus they considered spending extra money on polishing it a waste.
Over the course of “Crawdads,” references to the lack of morality in nature abound, pointing to the notion that all creatures, Kya included, operate on survival instinct without seeing their behavior as right or wrong. These and many other life-affirming platitudes not only express banal messages but do so in lines of dialogue so absolutely trite the sound of their inexistent originality can cause one to cringe as a defense mechanism.
If screenwriter Lucy Alibar (“Beasts of the Southern Wild”) adapted Owens dialogue and narration verbatim, then the blame for its atrociousness rests on the original text and perhaps the producers’ commitment to faithfulness. But if in fact Alibar was given liberty to transform it, then she carries the guilt for its make-your-ears-bleed triteness. Either way, it suffers deeply from it.
The melodrama in “Crawdads” is so thickly laden with clichés that some soap operas may look its way and feel embarrassed. One could perhaps offer some leniency if the book that serves as its source was a decades-old classic written in a different time, when perhaps its premise and plot were considered revelatory. But this 2022 film is the result of a 2018 tome that feels entirely trapped in bygone tropes with little effort to reinvent them.
To think that this tale, in its published form, captivated millions of readers is more evidence of people’s bad taste than any sort of badge of honor for the writer. At the risk of being as uninterestingly evident as the narrative at hand, the perennial truth that popularity and profitability don’t equate quality applies here profusely.
A twist reveals the real killer in the case, but by then one’s interest has already sunk to the bottom of the marsh. If the crawdads do in fact chant, then it must be in agony over this film.
“Where the Crawdads Sing” opens in US theaters July 15.