Oh, the crawdads definitely sing in "Where the Crawdads Sing." Much of the time, you wish they'd shut the hell up.
The movie is faithful to a fault to Delia Owens' blockbuster novel, so it's practically a demonstration of how books and movies work differently. The story combines a bunch of elements: a girl who somehow raises herself in the wild marshes of North Carolina, a murder-mystery, a race relations subplot so sketchy it's borderline offensive, a small-town trial along the lines of "To Kill a Mockingbird" and questions about whether haves and have-nots can bridge their class divide.
Olivia Newman's film glides over Owens' plot holes like an airboat skimming the surface of a swamp. We don't see how 10-year-old Kya (Daisy Edgar-Jones) manages to raise and educate herself solely by collecting mussels. We don't understand how her entire family could leave this kid to her own devices or how she becomes a learned, goodnatured person despite literally every odd being stacked against her. We wonder why the pale Edgar-Jones never gets sunburned despite spending every waking moment outdoors. We don't get why, having learned self-sufficiency, it's important for young adult Kya to end up with one of two men, both of whom are unworthy of her.
The strength of Owens' book was its depiction of the natural world Kya lives in and loves to sketch. That's the material Owens, a zoologist, seems most comfortable with and it provides a powerful sense of the place her heroine finds so inspirational. We get a lot of her prose in the incessantly over-narrated movie, too, but it doesn't work the same way because the movie can show us the wonders of North Carolina (technically, Louisiana, where it was shot), so the lyrical descriptions of dragonflies lighting on sprigs of kudzu sound goofy and over-the-top.
I suspect some fans of the book will like the movie, just the same. If they would enjoy seeing how well a big-budget movie can capture its world, "Crawdads" succeeds on that level. Moment to moment, it is visually beautiful. But with its lack of nuance and rushed, hard-to-swallow twists, non-fans may wonder what the fuss is about.
'Where the Crawdads Sing'
*1/2 out of 4 stars
Rated: PG-13 for violence, including a sexual assault.
Where: In area theaters.