Placing Daisy Edgar-Jones under the spotlight, “Where the Crawdads Sing” serves up a virtual symphony of chords – adapting a bestselling book that’s part wild-child tale, part romance, part mystery and part courtroom drama. The result effectively overcomes its Lifetime-movie vibe, without feeling like something anyone needs to rush to a theater to consume.
A grim tale of bad men (mostly) and one very resilient and resourceful young girl, the film features a sweeping roster of female auspices, including director Olivia Newman, screenwriter Lucy Alibar, novelist Delia Owens, producer Reese Witherspoon, and an original song from Taylor Swift.
Still, the enterprise might be best remembered as a showcase for Edgar-Jones (“Normal People”), an English actor whose busy year conquering America already includes the limited series “Under the Banner of Heaven.”
Beginning in 1969, the narrative flashes back to gradually unspool the story of Kya (Edgar-Jones), who is abandoned by her family at a young age and left alone with her violently abusive father (Garret Dillahunt). After an uncomfortable stretch learning to coexist, he too vanishes, forcing the child to fend for herself.
Growing upon the outskirts of her small North Carolina town, she’s known as the “Marsh Girl,” and treated kindly by only a precious few, including the local store owners (Michael Hyatt, Sterling Macer Jr.), while being shunned and mocked by others.
The kindness column also includes her neighbor Tate (Taylor John Smith), which is where the romance comes in, at least, until he heads off to college. Alone again, naturally, Kya eventually begins seeing the churlish Chase (“The King’s Man’s” Harris Dickinson), a one-time football star, whose mysterious death lands her behind bars, forcing her to rely on the assistance of a soft-spoken lawyer (David Strathairn, excellent as always).
Awash as it is in steamy melodrama, “Where the Crawdads Sing” (a reference to where Kya is told to retreat in pursuit of safety) has an obvious throwback feel. Indeed, it’s the sort of fare that might have been a popular theatrical item in the ’50s, near the time when Kya’s story begins, and like the tonally similar “Deep Water,” today would normally go directly to Hulu – or just as often, become six stretched-out episodes for it.
Still, Edgar-Jones brings an old-fashioned movie-star appeal to Kya’s plight and her understandable leeriness in terms of trusting those around her. When she says, “People don’t stay,” she has the receipts and emotional scars to back that up.
Newman’s direction maintains the mystery through the gasps and sneers from the gallery during the trial sequences, leading to the eventual determination of Kya’s fate. It’s a satisfying conclusion that doesn’t overplay its hand.
The net effect doesn’t qualify as a showstopper, and frankly even with the book’s popularity, at this point launching such a film theatrically feels like a considerable leap of faith. Then again, that dynamic offers a reason to root for “Where the Crawdads Sing,” a smallish movie that hits just enough of the right notes.
“Where the Crawdads Sing” premieres in US theaters on July 15. It’s rated PG-13.