I don’t know why the Crawdads sing (or what it sounds like when they do). That these crustraceans can form impromtu acapella choirs is something we just have to take on trust in Olivia Newman’s gloopy and grating murder-mystery-cum-romance, adapted from Delia Owens’ wildly successful novel.
It’s the early 1950s, and adorable Kya Clark (Jojo Regina; genuinely disarming) is part of a big, dysfunctional family, who live in a North Carolina marsh. Soon, though, the kid is all alone. To be abandoned by one parent may be regarded as a misfortune. To be abandoned by two parents and four siblings looks like carelessness (on the part of scriptwriter, Lucy Alibar).
Practically everyone in the conservative town of Barkley Cove views Kya as a blot on the landscape. Luckily, she’s befriended by a beaming black couple, Jumpin (Sterling Macer, Jr) and Mabel (Michael Hyatt). Years later, our heroine, (Normal People’s Daisy Edgar-Jones; game but miscast), is living her best life. Thanks to the saintly interventions of Jumpin and Mabel, plus home-schooling from gorgeous, wholesome boyfriend Tate (Taylor John Smith), Kya has become a ground-breaking, self-reliant amateur naturalist. In exchange for a bag or two of mussels, Kya has unlimited access to food, hair-cuts, cute clothes and top-notch art supplies, as well as a boat which (like her charmingly-furnished abode), stays in permanently good nick. It’s a miracle!
Alas, things go tits up with Tate and, before long, Kya is being wooed by furtive rich-kid Chase (Harris Dickinson). But then Chase shows up dead and Kya becomes the No.1 suspect. Can lawyer, Tom, (David Strathairn) save her skin?
Seagulls pecking at a keyboard could come up with more involving dialogue and Smith only adds to the overwrought yet soporific mood. Tate, with his blank eyes and impossibly neat hair, is so automaton-like I hoped a twist might reveal him to be an actual robot; one whose implacable geniality so frustrates Kya that she pushes him into the marsh, causing him to short circuit (at least then a few sparks might fly).
Dickinson is far more lively, finding a way to stitch self-disgust into a sunny smile. The film’s actual twist, too, is genuinely intriguing. Yes, it comes too late in the day, but it allows Kya to rise above noble naif cliches. That, coupled with Taylor Swift’s yummily plaintive song Carolina, offers a glimpse of what might have been, i.e a fresh, MeToo take on Douglas Sirk-style melodrama.
I’d rather eat a box of Caran d’Ache pencils than rewatch this mess. Still, I’m not horrified it’s found an audience (it’s a hit, in the US), because Kya the pariah is definitely deeper than she looks.