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WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING:  2 ½ STARS. “a sleepily paced melodrama.”

“Where the Crawdads Sing,” the Reese Witherspoon-produced movie, based on the bestselling novel of the same name by Delia Owens and now playing in theatres, is a bildungsroman. That may sound like the name of a frenetic Hobbit wedding dance or a syrupy-sweet Klingon dessert, but it’s actually just a fancy word for a study of a person’s formative years or spiritual education. Ripe with themes of abandonment, solitude and, ultimately, independence, the movie is a unique coming-of-age story that covers spiritual growth and more earthy concerns.

Set in and around the small North Carolina town of Barkley Cove, the story focusses on Kya, played by Daisy Edgar-Jones. Abandoned as a child (played by Jojo Regina as a youngster), she raised herself in the nearby coastal marshlands. Nicknamed “Marsh Girl” by the locals, she is almost completely isolated. With no formal education, she learns to survive by observing the marsh wildlife.

Resilient and clever, she says, “The marsh taught me how to survive, but it didn’t teach me everything.”

When her head is turned by two young men from town, the kindly Tate (Taylor John Smith) and chauvinistic football star Chase (Harris Dickinson), she enters an unfamiliar world. Regarded with suspicion, laughed at and harassed, her life takes a dire turn when Chase turns up dead. Charged with murder and facing the death penalty, Kya must draw on all her experience to endure.

“In spite of everything trying to stomp it out,” she says, “life persists. Where out yonder, where the crawdads sing, the marsh knows one thing above all else; every creature does what it must to survive.”

“Where the Crawdads Sing” is a lot of things. It’s a love triangle, a murder mystery, a story of overcoming the odds and yet, none of it really sticks. What could have been a steamy Southern Gothic, ripe with sex and death, is, instead a sleepily paced melodrama that doesn’t deliver on the premise of female empowerment promised by the film’s intriguing lead character.

Kya could have been an electric, autodidactic character, persevering against overwhelming odds—abuse, heartbreak and abandonment—to blossom spiritually. Edgar-Jones conveys some of that through her wide-eyed performance, and her intelligence is obvious, but the resilience needed for Kya to survive and thrive is lacking.

Without a galvanizing lead character, the heart and soul of “Where the Crawdads Sing” is lost, leaving behind warmed over intrigue and melodrama.

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