Review: ‘Crawdads’ bogged down by corny contrivance

In 2018, Delia Owens’ best-selling novel “Where the Crawdads Sing” was all the rage, in part due to a controversy involving its author. Owens, an ex-resident of Africa, is reportedly still wanted for questioning for the 1995 killing of an elephant poacher.

The book’s popularity intensified and led to a new film produced by Reese Witherspoon with an original song courtesy of Taylor Swift, but star power can’t save “Crawdads” from its ham-fisted cliches.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence the book’s premise mirrors its source material by involving a woman accused of murder: Namely, Kya (Daisy Edgar-Jones), who is at one with nature in small-town North Carolina’s marshlands and charged with killing a young man.

Set throughout the 1950s and ’60s with flashbacks to the girl’s volatile childhood, the film chronicles Kya’s parentless path through her formative years onward.

First and worst is her abusive father (Garret Dillahunt), who scares away his wife and children, except for Kya.

She is known as Marsh Girl to most residents of Barkley Cove who can’t be bothered with her progress: She develops artistic skills, drawing elements of Mother Nature; finds resourceful ways to earn money; learns how to survive alone in the titular locale and finds romance.

Along comes adolescence plus boys, first the dashing but humble Tate (Taylor John Smith), who teaches her how to read, write and trust. He moves away, so Kya eventually meets Chase (Harris Dickinson), a local football hero and ladies’ man.

When he is found dead, almost everybody assumes Kya must be the perpetrator — everybody, that is, except the town’s once-retired attorney (David Strathairn).

Other significant characters include a married couple who operate a local store (Sterling Macer Jr. and Michael Hyatt) and look out for Kya’s best interests.

The authentic cast’s effort is undeniable; the movie’s shortcomings ought not to be blamed on Edgar-Jones and Strathairn, the latter of whom is a master of subtlety.

Although the forlorn pariah’s facade adds mystique to the proceedings, it also allows for social condescension ad nauseum. In turn, director Olivia Newman and scripter Lucy Alibar grind the judicial axe for a lion’s share of the story. Cue the standard courtroom scenes.

It has been four years since Newman’s feature debut “First Match” impressed critics, but “Where the Crawdads Sing” has ended that honeymoon.

Granted, it is an old-fashioned escapist drama with a skillful assist from cinematographer Polly Morgan, who weaves the foreboding swamp into Egyptian cotton. Despite a dark premise with murder at its core, however, the movie feels tame and pristine, as if based on a Nicholas Sparks novel.

Therein lies the fatal flaw of “Where the Crawdads Sing:” It bounces from gritty to gorgeous, dubious to delightful. Its formulaic tendencies may sit well with Owens’ devotees, but less so among the multitudes at the cineplex.