Taylor Swift’s haunting Appalachian folk song “Carolina” based on Delia Owens’ bestselling novel “Where the Crawdads Sing” is darker than Olivia Newman’s big screen adaptation which feels like a diluted version of the bleak source material. Still, the first-rate performance by Brit Daisy Edgar-Jones as Kya aka “Marsh Girl” accused of murder in a sleepy North Carolina town, is enough to keep the audience engaged.

Set in 1969 where we find our protagonist Kya Clark (Edgar-Jones) on trial for the murder of Chase Andrews (Harris Dickinson), a former star athlete in the small North Carolina town of Barkley Cove. Through a series of flashbacks, we discover that for her entire life, Kaya has been picked on by the town’s residents who have nicknamed her “Marsh Girl” after being abandoned by her entire family and left to fend for herself in a small cabin located in the area’s marshlands. Now a group of her peers is tasked with sealing her fate as the local prosecutor attempts to prove she murdered her former boyfriend who fell to his death from the top of an abandoned fire tower. There were no witnesses, and no fingerprints were found at the crime scene.

David Strathairn plays attorney Tom Milton — doing his best Atticus Finch impersonation — who offers to represent Kya, he’s one of the town’s few residents who showed her any kindness. During one of the film’s flashbacks, we see Kya as a child (played by Jojo Regina), barefoot and dirty attempting to enter school only to be ridiculed by her classmates. Earlier, Tom reminded her that had just as much right to be in school as anyone else.

Narrated by Edgar-Jones, Kya tells her story. One that’s filled with an alcoholic and abusive father (Garrett Dillahunt) who forced her mother to abandon the family, a move quickly followed by Kya’s older brothers and sisters. In the end, she was left to fend for herself, surviving by staying out of her drunk father’s way. He too eventually left.

Kya survives her childhood by collecting mussels from the swamp and selling them to Jumpin’ and his wife Mabel (Sterling Macer, Jr. and Michael Hyatt) who own the local swampland general store. They become surrogate parents to the small girl who one day becomes a best-selling author, her books proudly displayed in the store’s window.

The story keeps shifting from the present, Kya awaiting trial for murder, to the past as we watch her blossom into a teenager meeting her first love Tate (Taylor John Smith), the son of a shrimper who teaches her to read and write. Smith delivers a good performance as the honorable down-home boy who eventually leaves Kya as he goes off to college, once again she feels abandoned.

On the rebound, Kya meets the town’s star high school quarterback Chase who begins pursuing her. She is cautious but eventually begins a relationship with the young man who the audience sees as a red flag, you’re never sure if he is sincere with promises of making Kya his wife, or is he just trying to get in her pants?

Owens’ novel is dark. It’s a story of abuse and heartache. And while there are a few disturbing moments in Newman’s adaptation, we witness Kya, her mother, and her siblings being abused, the mood changes too quickly, and the impact of those scenes is lost. Eventually, the film leans towards the love story aspect, altering the mood of what should be a much darker tale. It’s Daisy Edgar-Jones’s mesmerizing performance that keeps the audience engaged while looking past the fact that no one speaks with a southern drawl and there are no snakes or alligators anywhere making the swampland an inviting place that becomes Kya’s playground. She begins to illustrate various shells and creatures that exist in the marsh and becomes a published author.

“Where the Crawdads Sing” is a film about murder and abuse just as “Twilight” is a film about vampires. The soft approach to hard-hitting material has an audience, one that will embrace Newman’s big screen adaption which is executive produced by Reese Witherspoon who selected Ownes’ novel for her Hello Sunshine Book Club. Strathairn makes up for the lackluster courtroom scenes while Edgar-Jones captivates us as the “Marsh Girl” trying to survive a life that hasn’t been very fair. Despite my grievances with the film, I fell for it hook, line, and sinker.

(3 stars)

Now showing in theaters

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Joe Friar head and shoulders

Joe Friar

Member of the Critics Choice Association (CCA), Latino Entertainment Journalists Association (LEJA), the Houston Film Critics Society, and a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic.