The beauty of the natural setting and the central love story aren't quite enough to save this adaptation from the slippery slope of melodrama, but Edgar-Jones gives a stand-out performance. The genre-bending page-to-screen drama is like a classic tragic romance set in the American South, with young Kya an almost Dickensian figure. The cruelties that young Kya must endure are nearly unwatchable: Her entire family abandons her, her father slaps her, the other kids taunt her. Later, audiences will cheer as Kya grows into a young woman who observes all the fauna and flora of the marsh with joy and admiration (and as the lovely and selfless Tate takes an interest in tutoring her and clearly falls in love). But Kya's bad luck ultimately continues, and she ends up not with brilliant scientist-in-training Tate but with predatory and deceitful Chase, who's more interested in conquest than true love.
Screenwriter Lucy Alibar's adaptation makes the murder case against Kya the framing device that spawns flashbacks to the romances, tragedies, and family drama. But, unlike the book, the movie version of Where the Crawdads Sing doesn't fully explore each of those aspects of the story. The court proceedings in particular don't explore the details that make the eventual revelations pack an extra punch. What director Olivia Newman does explore is the way that darkness lurks just beneath the lush landscape. For every feather or shell that Kya collects, there's an ugly secret, a foul rumor, a moment of abuse to witness. It's no wonder Kya prefers the marsh to the town, the kindness of Jumpin and Mabel to the scrutiny of Chase's friends. Kya, like the animals she's observed her whole life, knows when to shrink into herself as a survival mechanism. And while the movie can be overly sentimental, there are some lovely sequences, usually between Edgar-Jones and Smith. It also has notable messages about the importance of nature, love, and treating the disenfranchised with respect and dignity.