As eras of entertainment change, so do the preferences of audiences. However, the studio system has seemingly made a choice in the past decade: high risk for high gains. Superhero films and franchise IP represent the bulk of our big-budget releases, yet only some reach their financial potential. While a billion-dollar grosser sounds good on paper, mid-budget hits have been almost squeezed out of the industry. Produced by a team that includes Resse Witherspoon, Where the Crawdads Sing represents a throwback in every sense of the word. An old-school murder mystery primarily told as a courtroom drama, the paperback adaptation entertains from start to finish. While it certainly hits bumps on the road, it’s also a rather enjoyable mystery.
In the late 1960s, star quarterback Chase Andrews (Harris Dickinson) dies under suspicious circumstances a small Carolina town investigates his death as a murder. This brings them to the marshes, where an outsider named Kya Clark (Daisy Edgar-Jones) becomes the primary suspect. As she stands trial for murder, she reminisces about her difficult life. After her father (Garrett Dillahunt) beat and abandoned her, she found her new family. With the help of local storeowners Jumpin’ (Sterling Macer Jr.) and Mabel (Michael Hyatt), as well as her first romantic relationship Tate (Taylor John Smith), Kya has become a naturalist author. However, her trial threatens to destroy the life she’s created.
Based on the popular novel by Delia Owens, Where the Crawdads Sing walks a dangerous line between poverty porn and a tale of injustice. These themes often tie hand-in-hand with courtroom drama. After all, what is more sympathetic than a wrongly accused protagonist? However, Where the Crawdads Sing plays the story as a straightforward melodrama. The odd mixture calls back to films like Fried Green Tomatoes, The Rainmaker, and Primal Fear but misses the heights of those stories. Still, director Olivia Newman pushes the right buttons at the right moments. She knows how to extract the most out of the source material, even if the source material lingers on ideas and concepts that feel extraneous to the story.
This creates pacing issues in the story, especially as we hear Kya’s background. Edgar-Jones feels slightly miscast in the role, despite showing some talent. There’s a divergence between how the film talks about Kya and how she interacts with the outside world. Edgar-Jones is charming and charismatic. Despite extensive flashbacks depicting her as incompetent, she never feels like the outsider we’re told she is throughout the story.
That said, Edgar-Jones plays the role to the best of her ability. She gets us to buy in on her emotional journey, playing up the loneliness in palpable and sympathetic moments. Her strength comes from her passion for education; Edgar-Jones sells this as Kya’s monomania. Without that devotion, there’s little here to celebrate.
Surprisingly, most background performers get few scenes to showcase their talent. David Strathairn makes the most of his role, adding nuance and near-perfect timing to his speeches. As Kya’s lawyer, he gets most of the standout moments of the trial, both in terms of compassion and anger at her mistreatment. Macer and Hyatt display just enough pathos to leave an impression but are underserved by the screenplay. Dickinson gets to play an attractive, charismatic fraud, perhaps his best kind of role. Still, he strangely feels underutilized, in part because we never see the crime in question take place. Another throwback to Anatomy of a Murder serves as an interesting directorial choice, but does little to provide the actors with showcase scenes.
Ultimately Where the Crawdads Sings serves an audience hankering for 90s nostalgia. It is both an interesting mystery and a story of self-empowerment. Yet it does little stylistically to differentiate itself from similar films. It features a decent Taylor Swift song over the credits, but that’s not enough to push the film into the canon of classic courtroom dramas. Instead, it seems destined for fun, if not forgettable, watches on lazy Sunday afternoons.