Controversial 'Where the Crawdads Sing' just took No. 1 Netflix movies spot — should you watch?

Kya (Daisy Edgar-Jones) in Where the Crawdads Sing
(Image credit: Courtesy of Sony Pictures)

A surprise Netflix release, Where the Crawdads Sing (wasn't listed in Netflix's new in  November 2022 schedule) is an instant hit online. We're not sure Where the Crawdads Sing will be getting a slot on our best movies on Netflix list, but we already know it's proven successful on Netflix.

The film jumped to #1 on the Netflix movies list in the U.S. on Sunday, Nov. 13 (and it's still there, fighting off Lindsay Lohan's Falling for Christmas). This success is even more notable when you learn that Netflix with ads doesn't have this movie (it's missing 1,065 other titles too). 

It seems like Netflix's seized on a built-in audience: not only did the film earn $140 million worldwide in its summer 2022 theatrical run, but it also featured an original Taylor Swift song ("Carolina").

But none of that says "you should actually watch Where the Crawdads Sing." Because answering the 'should you stream?' question is a lot more complicated. (And if you don't want to stream, don't worry: we've got the 7 best new movies to watch online, as well as the schedule of what's new on Netflix, with movies and shows for the week of Nov. 14). We've also got an explanation of the controversies that surround the film, some tied to two of its characters and others about Delia Owens, the author of the book the film is based on.

What is Where the Crawdads Sing about? And why is it so controversial?

Where the Crawdads Sing, which came out this past summer, focuses on Kya Clark (Daisy Edgar-Jones): a young girl on her own in North Carolina. Nicknamed "Marsh girl" for the area in which she resides, Kya becomes a suspect in a murder mystery connected to one of two men she's romantically involved with.

The film is an adaptation of author Delia Owens' book of the same name, and it's Owens herself (and her then-husband Mark) who is tied to some of the controversy related to the film. 

The interesting thing about Crawdads is that two of its actors seemingly diffuse some of the book's controversy. Kya is able to make do because of help from the Black couple — Jumpin' (Sterling Macer, Jr.) and Mabel (Charlene "Michael" Hyatt) — whose dialogue in the book was called out by critics (opens in new tab) for perpetuating racial stereotypes. David Erlich of IndieWire (opens in new tab), though, wrote "If Jumpin and Mabel still betray the career-long criticism that Owens tends to infantilize her Black characters, Macer and Hyatt ground their roles in a quiet dignity that pushes back against how they may have been written on the page."

On its own, that might not be as glaring, but Delia and Mark Owens' history doesn't help them. Their book Secrets of the Savanna drew attention (opens in new tab) by calling for human population control as a means to save the wildlife, and Delia's Owens Foundation website has been criticized (opens in new tab) for referring to Africa as "the dark continent."

Oh, and, Owens was wanted in questioning (opens in new tab) for a 1990s murder in Zambia.

Where the Crawdads Sing reviews: What the critics think

If that controversy isn't enough to stop you from watching, maybe the critics consensus will be. On Rotten Tomatoes, Where the Crawdads Sing got a notably low 35%, drawn from reviews such as critic Scott Tobias (opens in new tab)' (from his newsletter, free after signing up with your email address), where he wrote "The PG-13-ness of Where the Crawdads Sing buffs every rough edge off this story—the abuse, the abandonment, the betrayal, the sex, and even the alleged murder. It would be better off as trash."

Kya (Daisy Edgar-Jones) in Where the Crawdads Sing

(Image credit: Michele K Short)

At New York Mag's Vulture (opens in new tab), Bilge Ebiri managed to find something nice to say, writing "The best thing about both novel and movie is Kya herself, a submerged character who finds solace and companionship in nature, and who, never having lived anything resembling a normal life around other people, doesn’t quite know what to do with her emotions. ... Edgar-Jones is perhaps best at conveying this young woman’s wounded inner life; that speaks to the actress’s talents. However, she never really feels like someone who emerged from this world, but rather one who was dropped into it; that speaks to the clunky filmmaking."

But, overall, Ebiri is negative on 'Crawdads' writing "for much of Where the Crawdads Sing, we’re left watching a not-very interesting and all-but predetermined trial, with little suspense or surprise. ... So, forget the crawdads, the turkeys, the fireflies, the seashells, and the snow geese. Forget even the jailhouse cat. The movie is a snake that eats itself."

One positive review came from Liz Shannon Miller of Consequence (opens in new tab), who writes "The bluntness of its messaging proves to be a bit of a detraction, but the fact remains that Where the Crawdads Sing is a heartfelt and gorgeous picture, the kind which major studios used to make all the time, and now feel like a bit of an endangered species."

Should you watch Where the Crawdads Sing tonight?

Where the Crawdads Sing's 97% audience score (opens in new tab) at Rotten Tomatoes stands starkly against its low critics score. And if you look at some fans' reviews, you may get a better idea of if you should watch or not. Tori B called it "A tale reminiscent of The Notebook. A beautiful piece on discrimination and not seeing past the outside to look inside." 

Matthew R is more helpful with his mixed review, writing "Movie was OK. Plots is a little thin and none of the acting really stood out. It's an OK Wednesday night movie when there is nothing else on. The scenery was beautiful, guess I didn't realize there are marshes in NC so that was kind of interesting. ... The movie was missing that something that lures you in and keeps you fascinated for the entire length. Even the "twist" at the end wasn't really shocking in any sense. It's worth a watch but don't rent it. If it's available on one of your streaming services fine, but don't pay anything for it."

And there you have the big reason to finally check out Where the Crawdads Sing. You're already paying for Netflix, and you want to see what the hubbub is all about. 

Next: Here's how to watch Nope online, the 5 HBO Max movies you should watch tonight, and how to watch A Christmas Story Christmas online.

Henry T. Casey
Senior Editor

Henry is a senior editor at Tom’s Guide covering streaming media, laptops and all things Apple, reviewing devices and services for the past seven years. Prior to joining Tom's Guide, he reviewed software and hardware for TechRadar Pro, and interviewed artists for Patek Philippe International Magazine. He's also covered the wild world of professional wrestling for Cageside Seats, interviewing athletes and other industry veterans.