‘Where the Crawdads Sing’: Arrest draws a recluse out of her wetlands isolation in uneven but well-acted period piece

Daisy Edgar-Jones’ performance and the gorgeous imagery redeem a book adaptation that’s uneven and sometimes implausible.

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Abandoned by her family at age 6, Kya (Daisy Edgar-Jones) grows up on her own in a North Carolina cabin in “Where the Crawdads Sing.”

3000 Films

You’ve never seen a Marsh Girl as attractive and kempt and impressive as the Marsh Girl in “Where the Crawdads Sing.” Even though she has lived all by herself in a rudimentary cabin deep in the wetlands for the better part of a decade with no formal schooling and very little social contact, she looks like she stepped out of a Sears catalog and apparently shaves her legs, bathes and shampoos on a regular basis, has lovely white teeth, and get this: She’s such a brilliant observer and student of her surroundings, such a talented artist, that she just sold a book of her drawings of seashells to a publisher and received a nifty $5,000 advance, and this is in 1969 so that’s about 40 grand in today’s dollars. Marsh Girl has it going on!

And yet when Marsh Girl is literally hauled out of the water and charged with the murder of a local young man named Chase who is a former football hero, practically everyone in town is convinced she’s guilty, because after all, she’s that weirdo Marsh Girl, aka Missing Link, aka Wolf Girl. Nothing but a savage, they’ll tell ya. Of course she murdered Chase, because she knew she wasn’t good enough for him.

This is one of the many eyebrow-raising hitches in the plot of the uneven and at times implausible period-piece drama “Where the Crawdads Sing,” and yet we are recommending it because Daisy Edgar-Jones (“Under the Banner of Heaven”) is luminous and spectacularly effective in the lead role, it’s one of the most gorgeously photographed films of the year, the invaluable David Straitharn provides terrific supporting work, and despite the problematic storyline, it works as an escapist piece of fantasy entertainment.

‘Where the Crawdads Sing’

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3000 Pictures presents a film directed by Olivia Newman and written by Lucy Alibar, based on the novel by Delia Owens. Rated PG-13 (for sexual content and some violence including a sexual assault). Running time: 125 minutes. Now showing at local theaters.

Director Olivia Newman (“First Match”) and screenwriter Lucy Alibar (“Beasts of the Southern Wild” have been tasked with adapting one of the most successful books in recent history: the 2018 novel of the same name by Delia Owens, which sold a whopping 12 million copies after being selected by Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine Book Club. (Witherspoon is one of the executive producers of the movie.) With Louisiana filling in for North Carolina, the time-jumping storyline is faithful to the novel, telling the story of one Catherine Danielle Clark, aka Kya, who is but 6 years old by the time her mother, then her older siblings and finally her abusive father abandon their marshland cabin, leaving Kya to fend for herself. Somehow the girl survives for years, with the occasional help of Mabel (Michael Hyatt) and Jumpin’ (Sterling Macer Jr.), a local couple who own a nearby grocery store and seem to exist solely for the purpose of quietly and kindly looking after Kya whenever they can. (Jojo Regina does wonderful work portraying Kya as a little girl, with Edgar-Jones picking up the role when Kya is a teenager and young woman in her 20s.)

It’s 1969 when the adult Kya is arrested and charged with the murder of upscale townie Chase Andrews (Harris Dickinson). Retired attorney Tom Milton (David Straitharn), who is right out of the “To Kill a Mockingbird” playbook, volunteers to take Kya’s case and tells her he can’t defend her unless he gets to know her, at least a little bit. Cue the flashbacks to the 1950s and early 1960s, as we see how Kya becomes one with her surroundings, getting to know all the creatures great and small with the skill set of the untrained but talented scientist/author she will become.

A goodhearted and handsome local boy named Tate Walker (Taylor John Smith) takes a shine to Kya, first befriending her, then teaching her to read and write and eventually falling in love with her, and for this stretch of time the film plays like a soggy version of “The Notebook.” Tate goes off to the University of North Carolina with the promise to return to Kya on the Fourth of July, but in a heartbreakingly effective scene, Kya spends the night on the beach alone and wakes up devastated because Tate never showed.

A year or so later, another handsome local comes calling. Chase Andrews says all the right things as he courts Kya, but there’s something off about this guy. Against her better judgment, Kya allows Chase into her heart, but she eventually learns the truth about his jerk and tries to extricate herself from his life, but the possessive and duplicitous and violent Chase is having none of it. When Chase is found dead in the marsh, all signs and a considerable amount of circumstantial evidence point to Kya, which leads to the trial portion of the movie, complete with witnesses who are predisposed to judge Kya, a district attorney dead set on convicting her and a courtroom packed with observers who react on cue every time a bombshell is dropped. After the verdict is read, we’re given an epilogue that spans a number of decades and feels rather rushed but provides a measure of suitably satisfying albeit melodramatic closure.

Thanks in large part to the beautiful work by Daisy Edgar-Jones and the consistently stunning visuals, “Where the Crawdads Sing” provides just enough marshland entertainment to carry the day.

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