Deep in the marsh — dark and damp, where the crawdads sing — is where you’ll find Kya Clark.
When Reese Witherspoon and her Hello Sunshine book club read Delia Owens’ “Where the Crawdads Sing” in 2018, she knew one thing: The world needed to see it come to life.
Gracing theaters this summer, the film adaptation of “Where the Crawdads Sing” is one of the season’s most anticipated releases by both cinephiles and bibliophiles alike. The novel’s almost cult-favorite status has inspired major star power in its production, reeling in Witherspoon as the film’s producer and Taylor Swift as composer of the original song “Carolina” for the soundtrack.
The tale follows Catherine “Kya” Danielle Clark (Daisy Edgar-Jones) on a mission to survive. As a young girl, Kya watches as her family slowly dissolves. One by one, her loving mother, siblings and abusive father walk away from her forever.
“Whenever I stumbled, the marsh caught me,” Kya says.
Her home in the Southern marsh becomes her best friend and fiercest protector, raising Kya at an arm’s distance from the society of Barkley Cove, North Carolina. She is both an urban legend and the town pariah — the odd girl who lives deep in the marsh, wild and animalistic. When Barkley Cove’s former “it boy” Chase Andrews (Harris Dickinson) is found dead, the town’s fingers become sticky with blame for Kya.
So much of the story rests on Kya’s shoulders as the isolated protagonist in a hostile world, and doe-eyed Edgar-Jones bears the weight with pure grace and talent. Her performance breathes beautiful, resilient life into the prose of Delia Owens. Though the movie deviates slightly from the book by erasing Kya’s voice as a first-person narrator, Edgar-Jones’ Kya is the gravity that still manages to ground the story.
Despite Kya’s quiet nature, the best parts of her personality scream delightfully loud through Edgar-Jones’ physical and emotional performance. Indeed, Edgar-Jones’ immersive embodiment of the kind, passionate and misunderstood Kya offers the audience a one-way ticket to Barkley Cove.
In fact, Kya’s whole orbit comes to life in the perfect cast of characters with Taylor John Smith as Tate Walker, Dickinson as Chase Andrews and Sterling Macer Jr. as Jumpin’. Smith’s performance is particularly delightful as he portrays Tate, the innocent boy next door who coaxes Kya out of her shell into the intelligent scientist she eventually becomes.
Every actor’s performance is wholly engaging, their natural chemistry encapsulating the complexities of human and animal nature. It is precisely this chemistry — the strings that connect these characters — that heightens the stakes of Chase’s death. The mystery’s slow burn fans the flames of suspense, keeping the audience at the edge of their seats as the verdict falls.
Visually, the film also stuns as a celebration of Mother Nature herself. Landscapes of pink, green and orange glow with an effervescence that suggest it is seen through Kya’s loving eyes. North Carolina’s unassuming marsh alights with flocks of birds and fireflies, materializing Kya’s passion for biology and life itself.
Though the film checks all the boxes readers usually have on their list (see: faithful narrative), this diehard loyalty actually marks its biggest flaw. It is a case of missed opportunities: Instead of embracing visual storytelling changes that the movie medium would have allowed, it chooses to perform the scene of the final plot twist verbatim. This unfortunately stubborn creative direction leaves its cinematic potential unfulfilled. As a result, “Where the Crawdads Sing” struggles to stand on its own two legs, driving a halfhearted ending to what would have been an otherwise spectacular film.
Rough edges aside, the age-old debate of nature versus nurture takes shape in the haunting mystery of “Where the Crawdads Sing.” On the surface, the film thrills as a tale of survival, but at its raw, sensitive core, it teaches Kya how to live.
Good for her.