(director: Olivia Newton; screenwriters: Lucy Alibar/based on the novel by Delia Owens; cinematographer: Polly Morgan; editor: Alan Edward Bell; music: Mychael Danna; cast: Daisy-Edgar Jones (Kya Clark), Taylor John Smith (Tate Walker), Harris Dickinson (Chase Andrews), Garret Dillahunt (Pa), Michael Hyatt (Mabel), Ahna O’Reilly (Ma), David Straithairn (Tom Milton); Runtime: 125; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producers: Elizabeth Gabler/Reese Witherspoon/Erin Siminoff/Lauren Levy Neustadter; Sony; 2022)

“The misguided idealistic tale balks over issues like rejection and survival.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

In case you don’t know, crawdads are crayfish.

A heartfelt but bloody awful, shallow, heavy-handed and overlong slog over sentimental moralistic trails in the swamps of North Carolina. The misguided idealistic tale balks over issues like rejection and survival, as the disposable middle-brow film glosses superficially over such things as race, feminism and class.

The inexperienced second-time director Olivia Newton (“First Match”) bases it on the 2018 first-time best-selling novel by Delia Owens, a naturalist. The screenplay is tediously written by Lucy Alibar, who blames whites for failed diverse communities rather than more rigorously looking into how many young people grow up in communities that fail to reach them–which is one of the real social problems facing the modern youth.

It opens with the police checking on the death of a local popular town boy jock in the community, found in North Carolina’s marshes.

Living alone in the wooded area where the body is found, is the shy and reclusive teen outsider, a wannabe artist, Kya (Daisy Edgar-Jones). She’s an abused youngest child of her drunken father (Garret Dillahunt), who is known as ‘the marsh girl.’ Her mother (Ahna O’Reilly) and four other siblings abandoned her when they left the swamp area because of their abusive patriarch.  After abandoned by her family and isolated from her community, Kya resourcefully raised herself in the swamp.

Currently there are two lovesick boys chasing after Kya, who will later betray her. One of them is Chase (Harris Dickinson), the star quarterback who is the swamp murder vic that most townies think was killed by Kya.

The courtroom trial of Kya for the murder lacks tension. She’s defended by the kindhearted Tom Milton (David Straithairn, one of my favorite character actors), who in her defense traces her sad life (some of the film’s best scenes were between these two fine actors).

What also works rather well is how Kya makes herself at home in nature but can’t in civilization, and how those who could help her instead abandon her when she needs them most.

We note there are similarities between this story and the author’s first-hand knowledge of a 1996 murder by a poacher while she was doing conservation work in Zambia with her ex-husband, Mark Owens, a story that was previously televised. 

In the end, the misfire failed to satisfy, as there are more things wrong with it than right. That includes its poor pacing, the inadequate way it treats its characters (especially the Blacks) and its awkward way of story telling. Though it could appeal to the less critical viewers who are not prone to look too deeply at it, but it probably will appeal less to the more demanding viewer.
I have no complaints with the decent performance by Jones, who handles the given material as best she can considering how little she’s given to work with (as the story shouldn’t have been so tepid since it explores hot takes like sex and hurtful community secrets). The easiest part of the film might have been in figuring out the murder mystery, but figuring Kya out is another story–which should have been done with a deeper probe into her sad life.