Where the Crawdads Sing is an adaptation of Delia Owens’ best-selling novel of the same name, and one of the most highly anticipated films of the year. It’s the story of Kya Clark (Daisy Edgar-Jones), a young woman raised in the swampy marshlands of North Carolina, who is on trial for murder.

Born into poverty, Kya suffered at the hands of an abusive father, and living in a small shack deep in the marshlands, she watched her mother and siblings leave, one by one, until she was left to bear the torment alone. Without an education, or friends, she became an outsider and was known to the community as “Marsh Girl”.

When a man’s body is found at the base of a watchtower near Kya’s home, she is arrested and charged with murder. Reluctant to open up, she tells her story to her lawyer and recounts her life from childhood to the present (the 1960s), chronicling moments of abuse, romance and betrayal. He believes she’s innocent but is tasked with the improbable job of convincing a jury of locals to cast aside their prejudice.

Where the Crawdads Sing is sappy and melodramatic stuff to be sure, but there’s something about it that resonates. Perhaps it’s the effective production design combined with the romanticism of the swamplands? There is definitely an aesthetic at play – which is, admittedly, difficult to define – that restrains the movie from venturing into the Nicholas Sparks’ brand of mawkish pap.

Devotees of the novel would do well to temper their expectations because as is the case with most book-to-film adaptations, liberties have been taken. Much of the subtext and underlying themes are lost in translation, but the movie has its strengths. Given the time restraints and necessary structural adjustments, the deeper issues of domestic and sexual abuse are mostly implied, sparing the audience from such horrors. Whether or not this is to the film’s detriment will be for the viewer to decide.

Nevertheless, the movie has a classic and familiar quality to it, and the title itself elicits a sense of nostalgia, and is not far-removed from similar female-driven films of the ‘90s like Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe and The Spitfire Grill. And with a modicum of The Notebook thrown in for good measure, Where the Crawdads Sing has its sights set on a specific audience.

Daisy Edgar-Jones delivers a measured performance, portraying her character’s experience with care. She is delicate, vulnerable and strong all at once, and incredibly intelligent about nature. And when the notion of romance and human connection impedes on her existence, she’s apprehensive. The question of whether or not she’s a little too clean and wholesome for an uneducated girl raised in a swamp is a whole other issue that’s best ignored in order for the melodrama to work, and that’s an easy concession to make.

David Strathairn is also good as Kya’s self-appointed lawyer, comfortably leaning into the mild-mannered nice guy persona he’s been typecast as in his latter career. His moments on screen are predominantly reserved for the interjecting courtroom scenes, and his stature as a seasoned Hollywood actor of 40+ years lends the film some added gravitas.

Taylor John Smith (Shadow in the Cloud) makes for an appealing love interest with a tangible nice-guy quality, and Garret Dillahunt (Ambulance) is particularly good as Kya’s abusive father, whose behaviour is hinted to be PTSD-related. While never fully explored, his time on screen is played to horrific effect and informs so much of Kya’s circumstance.

Crawdads are never explained in the movie – they are geographically pinned to North Carolina, and Aussie audiences may benefit from knowing they are crayfish. They don’t sing, though – the title references a safe place within the marshlands where Kya and her brother would go to escape their father’s abuse.

Once again, fans of that Nicholas Sparks’ brand of storytelling (Safe Haven, The Longest Ride, The Notebook) will take more from Where the Crawdads Sing than others. However, those who are not so inclined will still appreciate its depth and overall aesthetic appeal. Suffice to say, it’s a crowd-pleaser.

Interview with director Olivia Newman

In cinemas: July 21, 2022
Starring: Daisy Edgar-Jones, Taylor John Smith, David Strathairn
Directed by: Olivia Newman