At the end of “Where the Crawdads Sing,” the film version of the runaway 2018 Delia Owens bestseller, Taylor Swift captures in song the haunting, folklore quality of the story about a young girl forced to raise herself in the North Carolina marshes, who later goes on trial for murdering the boy she thought she loved.
What a shame that this two-hour movie never matches the bruising beauty that Swift distills into that four-minute song. The guiding principle behind the film seems to be: Don’t mess with a novel that’s been on the New York Times bestseller list for 150 weeks.
Despite a stellar female creative team — producer Reese Witherspoon, director Olivia Newman (“First Match”) and screenwriter Lucy Alibar (“Beasts of the Southern Wild”) — the film takes so few risks with this publishing phenom that it feels more embalmed than freshly imagined.
Readers of the 2018 novel — which has sold 12 million copies and counting — probably won’t be bothered by the richer options left unexplored. There’s a flow to the movie that speeds you along even when you yearn for it to stop churning and dig deeper into the characters.
At first, English actress Daisy Edgar-Jones (so fine in “Normal People”) seems an odd choice for Kya Clark, the “Marsh Girl” who remains an outlier except to Tom Milton (the reliably superb David Strathairn), the old- school southern lawyer who defends her at her 1969 murder trial.
Edgar-Jones grows into the role of an enigma that the film tries to clear up through clumsy flashbacks. As a child in the 1950s, young Kya (a livewire Jojo Regina) is shown being abandoned by her mother (Ahna O’Reilly) and siblings and left at the mercy of her drunken, abusive father (Garret Dillahunt) until even he goes missing .
It’s the nurturing wildlife that eases Kya’s loneliness as she paints watercolors (later published) of the flora and fauna and finds comfort with Black shopkeepers Jumpin (Sterling Macer Jr.) and Mabel (Michael Hyatt) who help feed and clothe her.
The racial angle is perfunctory at best. And though cinematographer Polly Morgan creates pretty pictures, they ‘re no match for the nature writing that gave a touch of the poet to the book by Owens, a retired zoologist who was 69 when her novel debuted four years ago.
On screen, a titied-up Kya is far from the feral creature Owens created. And the film pushes way too hard at the love triangle that links Kya with sweet Tate Walker (Taylor John Smith), who deserts her to attend college, and bad boy Chase Andrews (Harris Dickinson), whose hotness hides secrets that continue Kya’s cycle of abuse.
That leaves the actors struggling to give cardboard cutouts the heft of flesh-and-blood people. Edgar-Jones has the skill to show how isolation defines Kya ‘s character her, but the film is always hustling her into overcrowded plot corners.
The whodunit twist relating to Chase’s murder still packs a wallop but at the expense of investigating themes that made the book stick in the memory despite its drift into soap opera. You have to return to the lyrics by Taylor Swift to find the heart of Kya’s story:
“I make a fist / I make it count / And there are places I will never ever go / And things that only Carolina will ever know.”
Swift’s words and music for “Carolina” suggest an abiding mystery that’s missing from the big-screen “Where the Crawdads Sing.” Fleeting traces of the book’s magic only add to the frustration of watching a facsimile trying to pass itself off as the real thing.