Buoyed by a strong performance from Daisy Edgar-Jones, this film nails Delia Owens’ book club phenomenon for better or worse.

We may never know the full truth behind Delia Owens’ checkered past as a conservationist – who almost certainly appears to involve a militant, white rescuer-oriented approach to policing Zambian game reserves, and may also stretch as a “co-conspirator and accomplice” to Murder — but the Where the Crawdads Sing author’s secret to success is now as obvious as her conspiracy, even to those of us who hadn’t heard of the runaway bestseller until Taylor Swift invented it a few weeks ago. Olivia Newman’s (“First Match”) slick and shiny beach read of a film adaptation brings it all to the surface. That’s a good thing, too, because the surface is the only layer this film has.

Yes, this is an expertly contrived melodrama about defiance in the face of abandonment, and sure, it’s also a slightly self-excusing caricature of a natural woman untouched by Western society. But underneath the story’s sultry romance with the Carolina marshland and behind the Hollywood-ready facade of backwoods Americana, “Where the Crawdads Sing” is really just a swampy riff on “Pygmalion,” with Eliza Doolittle reimagined as a semi-wild misfit who is obviously the hottest girl in town, but she lives in almost complete isolation until Barkley Cove’s Zack Siler teaches her to read and make out.

Tweaked from its source material using a Lucy Aliber script that embraces the foaminess of Owens’ book while turning down the temperature of his florid, Nature is my real mom Narratively, the film version of Where the Crawdads Sing is far more enjoyable as a hothouse page turner than as a soulful tale of female self-sufficiency. That it’s able to split the difference between Nicholas Sparks and “Nell” with a degree of credibility is a testament to Daisy Edgar-Jones’ meticulous performance as Kya Clark.

The youngest daughter of an abusive drunk and the only member of her family to remain in her isolated North Carolina home until the day Pa died sometime in the 1950s, Kya spent her childhood watching the people, one by one (she was played by Jojo Regina as a child). Left to her own devices from an early age and dehumanized into folklore by the “normal” people in town – especially the kids who call her “Marsh Girl” and laugh right back to the swamp when they go to school barefoot appears – Kya is forced to survive by selling shells to the nice black couple who run the local shop (Sterling Macer, Jr. as Jumpin and Michael Hyatt as his wife Mabel).

A few years later, she is dragged to Barkley Cove Jail and forced to stand trial for the murder of a doughy fellow named Chase Andrews; There, at the behest of the retired attorney (David Strathairn!), who is taking on her case out of the sheer goodness of her heart, Kya is finally forced to tell her life story for the first time, with her voiceover leading us through the past snippets of evocatively laden prose that her Establish a connection to nature. “Marsh is a place of light,” she coos, “where grass grows in water and water flows in the sky.” Really Time is a flat circle Kind of a twist, it often feels like Kya taught herself to write by reading all of this Miscellaneous Novels Canonized by Reese Witherspoon’s Book Club.

Of course, confident and capable as Kya is, we soon learn that she learned her letters with the help of the boxy, soft boy who grew up down by the creek. Tate Walker (Taylor John Smith), Kyas Joey Potter’s Dawson Leery, is a kindhearted soul who has lost a family of her own, which might explain why he always remembered the orphaned girl that everyone else in Barkley Cove tends to forget wanted to. In the summer before college, Tate leaves Kya’s supplies on a tree stump – like filling a feeding trap for a wild animal – only to find the Marsh Girl has matured into a movie star. It’s a real credit to Newman’s handling of her film’s goofy-serious tone that she allows Kya, who has no electricity or running water, to look like she blew all her shell money on Pantene Pro-V. In any case, there is kissing. Sometimes amidst a slow-motion vortex of leaves.

Kya (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Tate Walker (Taylor John Smith) in Columbia Pictures' WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING.

“Where the crayfish sing”

Michele K Kurz

But if Tate thinks the Marsh Girl will always be waiting for him (a girl can only walk a certain distance barefoot), he’s in for a rude awakening; Once Kya is revealed to be an absolute catch, she becomes an irresistible fetish object for the kind of guy who might have less honorable intentions. Enter our waiting corpse, Mr. Chase Andrews. Played by a raunchy but somewhat vulnerable Harris Dickinson, who looks so much like Taylor John Smith that his dark-haired character might as well be blonde Tate’s evil twin, Chase loves Kya like a secret compliment and talks down to her even if he is he’s tempted to take off her top. We know he won’t be here long, but did he fall off that rickety fire tower or was he pushed? Surely a girl like Kya who is so desperate for someone who might not let her down wouldn’t kill the one person who hasn’t already?

This framework of a question emerges in the background of a film that is far less interested in how Chase dies than in how Kya is persecuted for it – how the Marsh Girl remained innocent despite lifelong prejudice. Shy without being sneaky, naive without seeming childish, and in tune with nature without being totally “raised by wolves” (although the prison cat’s instant affinity for her is a bit too great), Edgar- Jones’ wide-eyed performance fully complements Kya’s reality as a survivor. Her soft voice and defensive demeanor give the character an upbeat inwardness that holds this film together across multiple timelines.

Kya (Daisy Edgar-Jones) in Columbia Pictures' WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING.

“Where the crayfish sing”

Michele K. Kurz

It’s a doubly impressive performance in an adaptation often edited to feel like a two-hour montage, a nagging theme that leaves “Crawdads” a little lopsided from its raunchy first half to its inelegant coda (though only an early scene of Young Kya and Tate barking at each other from separate boats is really bordering on Bohemian Rhapsody territory). It’s just a shame that the ultra-predictable ending of the story is presented in a way that denies us the full potential of Edgar-Jones’ performance, as Newman opts for hair-raising conclusions over initial satisfaction.

Up to this point, Where the Crawdads Sing works best as it embraces its own true nature as a popcorn movie. Newman seems to recognize that “and David Strathairn” are the three prettiest words ever to appear in the opening credits of a studio film, giving the actor the space he needs to strut through a sweaty courtroom in his white suit and himself we gasp along with the small crowd that has gathered to witness Kya’s trial. Dickinson textures Chase as well as the script allows, while enjoying the character’s inherent punch, so that the film’s central love triangle never loses its shape. If Jumpin and Mabel still betray career-long criticism that Owens tends to infantilize their black characters, Macer and Hyatt ground their roles in a quiet dignity that defies how they might have been written on the page.

As a film, Where the Crawdads Sing never seems worthy of the tumult that continues to surround the book, but – like its heroine – Newman’s adaptation finds just enough opportunities to survive.

Grade: C+

Sony Pictures brings Where the Crawdads Sing to theaters on Friday, July 15th.

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