6/10 Where the Crawdads Sing is the first movie to try to fill the vacuum left by the Fifty Shades movie franchise, or certainly the first theatrical release, but anyone who watched those movies can tell you that’s a hole that didn’t really need to be filled – perhaps more importantly, so could anyone who took a cursory glance at those movies’ numbers.
Barkley Cove, North Carolina, 1969- Catherine “Kya” Clark (Daisy Edgar-Jones), known as “the marsh girl,” is on trial for the murder of town quarterback Chase Andrews (Harris Dickinson), who fell to his death from a notoriously unsafe fire tower in the bog on a night when prosecutors can’t prove anyone else was there at all and when Clark personally was in Greenville 90 miles from the coast. Over the course of a prosecution that would be laughed out of any courtroom in America long, long before the trial stage, Clark flashes back to her abusive family abandoning her in the marsh, developing her ability to support herself and her relationships with Tate Walker (Taylor John Smith) and Andrews.
Where the Crawdads Sing isn’t a story as much as a full exploration of Clark’s life, her talents and interests, that weird lawsuit that still turns up when you Google her and her major loves, a full rundown of what you’d expect to learn on a first date, but packed with the juicy details you’d withhold until at least the second. It’s a very specific birth-to-death life story fantasy, where viewers get to know all sorts of details that aren’t necessarily relevant, but would help you connect with Clark were she a real person. It also diversifies into what was going on in America in the ‘50s and ‘60s by including black shop owners as her only contacts.
The volume is turned down on every element, from the idea of Clark as a feral child – Clark correctly uses the word “imply” in her first sentence onscreen, demonstrating not only speech but the ability to accurately analyze other people’s words – to easily escaping abusers to easy access to money to the idea that she’s ever in any real legal trouble. The prosecution is so speculative the movie almost feels sheepish going over their case.
On the other hand, this is set just after the Civil Rights Movement, a moment when some Americans were still being convicted on cases this thin because of existing prejudices. Maybe the whole film would be more tense if it more closely paralleled those events, or if they’d bucked up and just made Clark black, sucking all of that history into her skin without having to add anything else. There would be a lot more meat to her situation, her outcast family in the marsh, her status as a local cryptid, the white boys who see her as exotic, if given this context.
Where the Crawdads Sing is a Lifetime movie. It doesn’t belong in a theater, it belongs in the 2 p.m. slot on a TV channel for stay-at-home moms competing against the major soaps for the dwindling amount of time that business model has left, and I’m sure that’s where it will spend most of its post-release life.
The assertion is that there was enough of an audience for a thin, low-budget, book-based romantic drama like this to make it in theaters at all, and that’s plainly not true. This market was dominated for 15 years or so by Nicholas Sparks adaptations, which ruled one summer in 2004 and then dwindled into obscurity. The last adaptation came out just after Fifty Shades of Grey, which was a sensation upon its first release, but quickly showed the same lack of staying power – Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed were filmed as one production partially to discourage the studio from canceling the last one off.
The ironic thing is, the main reason Fifty Shades took such a quick nosedive is people flocked to the first one as an oddity, but it didn’t follow through on its promises. The sex scenes are boring – specifically, they’re slow and rely on the shock value of Grey’s toys, shock value that’s absent for viewers who have either already read the source material or the dozens of articles that swarm around every movie in the internet age. Everybody watching these movies already knew what a spreader bar was.
Where the Crawdads Sing, on the other hand, breaks out into 10 minutes of PG-13 porn within the first half-hour, Clark and her partner moving in and out of the marsh waters, submerging, pulling clothing overhead in multiple scenes within the sequence. I don’t feel like I’m old enough to be watching this. The people who wanted a more satisfying romance with higher stakes and hornier sex scenes will be very happy here.
From the perspective of satisfying its specific audience, a lot of the picture’s faults are suddenly right on the money. The hollow murder case is only the illusion of danger because the plot needs to remain low-stakes. The elaborate and extremely full story fits because this isn’t a narrative, it’s mythmaking. Clark is a goddess, and the function of her movie isn’t just to tell her tale, but enumerate all the things she is a goddess of.
After five weeks in release, Where the Crawdads Sing is sitting at $90 million worldwide against a $24 million budget, which is a great haul, but doesn’t bring it all the way back to the genre’s halcyon days. Mid-budget genre pieces are relics today anyway no matter what genre they are.
Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at email@example.com.