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  • Writer's pictureSaxon Whitehead

'Young Woman and the Sea': A Very Uplifting, Yet Standard Sports Drama

Considering the disparity in how the general public views men and women in sports, it sadly isn't all that surprising that there haven't been as many sports films made about female athletes. While there are countless films about male athletes, the number of films that center on women in sports are few and far between. There have been many legendary women athletes over the years, but very few people might even be aware of them simply due to the societal attitudes towards women in sports. Because of this, I would wager a guess that most people would be unaware of the story of Trudy Ederle, the first woman to ever swim the English Channel. In fairness, her story took place a long time ago, and swimming is not exactly a high profile sport, but it is surprising that she nor her swim aren't talked about more. Now, nearly 100 years after this historic feat, Ederle's story is finally getting the big screen treatment. Young Woman and the Sea depicts Ederle's childhood, and her rise in the ranks to become an Olympic swimmer before turning her sights to swimming the English Channel. It certainly takes a more conventional approach to her story, hitting a lot of familiar beats that most sports biopics do, but the story itself is so enthralling and uplifting that it is hard not to get pulled in by it. It is a film that honors Ederle quite well, and makes some interesting commentary about women in sports in the process.

Gertrude "Trudy" Ederle (Daisy Ridley) is a young woman living with her family in New York City. From a young age, her interminable spirit has helped her overcome a life-threatening case of the measles, and has convinced her parents to let her become a talented swimmer. Along with her sister, Meg (Tilda Cobham-Hervey) she becomes a competitive swimmer, first as part of the Women's Swimming Association and then at the Olympic level. Wanting to further prove herself, she becomes determined to swim the English Channel. With many still up in arms at the prospect of women competing in sports, some doubt her ability to pull it off. But with the help of her those who believe in her and her unwavering courage and drive, Trudy sets out to make history and change the narrative regarding women in sports forever.

Near the beginning of the film, I couldn't help but feel that Young Woman and the Sea is a bit of a throwback to the sports movies that Disney released in the early 2000s. Films like Remember the Titans, The Rookie, and Glory Road all fall into the inspirational sports movie category, but are still solid despite some of the tropes they feed into. With Young Woman and the Sea, there is certainly some boxes being checked, from its sweeping orchestral score, to the struggles that Trudy Ederle overcomes, to the traditional sports movie structure it employs. But despite its conventional trimmings, I couldn't help but get seriously invested in the film. Perhaps it is because I was not familiar with Ederle's story going into the film or that the film itself has a bit more substance to it than I was expecting. Either way, I was hooked early on by this film and it truly surprised me.

One of the things I appreciated was that the film is very blunt about how women athletes were (and still are) treated by society. Trudy faces adversity solely because she is a woman, and the idea of a woman competing in sports was considered a bit of a novelty during the early 20th century. It shows that women were not afforded the same opportunities as men were at the time, as well as the expectations set for them both in and out of the water. Some of the commentary is a bit heavy-handed, but the overall message is presented clearly and feels rather relevant to today. Even though Trudy's story happened a long time ago, a lot of what she experiences is not unlike what women experience now. The pressure from men to have a certain look or to live a certain life or to not follow your dreams because of who you are is still something that women experience now. But seeing how Trudy fought against this and believed in herself the whole time is inspiring, and is a major focal point for the whole film.

Joachim Rønning might not be the first name one would think of to direct a film like this, but considering that he is half of the team that made 2012's Kon-Tiki, he definitely has experience directing biopics about people making incredible aquatic journeys. Personally, I feel the film's themes of womanhood would have been handled better if a woman directed this film, but I can't deny that Rønning nails the swimming sequences. The third act is almost entirely Ederle's swim across the English Channel and it is quite thrilling. Even though we know where everything is going, you can't help but get a little nervous for Trudy as she faces obstacles along the way. A sequence involving some red jellyfish is honestly quite harrowing, and is captured in a way that is squirm-inducing, yet hard to look away from. Rønning and company do a great job of setting the stakes and allowing the audience to feel the pressure and danger that Ederle experiences as she crosses the English Channel.

It is great to see Daisy Ridley in a leading role, as I really enjoyed her performance as Rey in the recent Star Wars sequels. She isn't doing anything too showy here, which helps us connect to Trudy Ederle as a person. You really feel for her character and her desire to accomplish her dreams. It is a rather empathetic performance, and it makes it so easy to root for her. I was even more impressed by Tilda Cobham-Hervey's performance as her sister, Meg. This is my introduction to Cobham-Hervey, and she makes one heck of a first impression here. She is so expressive, and you can feel all of the emotions she's experiencing from the simplest look on her face. Her dynamic with Ridley is also great, and it really feels like they share a sisterly bond. Their relationship is the beating heart of the film, and they play off each other so well.

I was surprised to see Christopher Eccleston in this film, as I didn't know he was in it. He is as good as always, disappearing into the role of Jabez Wolffe, Trudy's antagonistic coach. He is a rude, vindictive character, and Eccleston brings a level of precision to the role that allows his scenes to have their maximum impact. I also enjoyed Stephen Graham's performance as Bill Burgess, a swimmer who previously swam the English Channel and later helps out Trudy. Graham has a wild energy that complements the rest of the film nicely, and there is a warmth to him that endears him to the viewer. I must also shout out Sian Clifford, who has such an effortless charm to her every time she shows up in the film. As Charlotte, Trudy's original swim coach, she has a fire to her that lights up the screen, and I like the boldness she brings to the role. I do wish there was a little more of her in the film, but she is great in every moment where she shows up.

Young Woman and the Sea may have a lot of the things that feel commonplace in sports biopics, but the true story of Trudy Ederle's quest to swim the English Channel is so compelling and so well-told in this film that it makes up for it. I was expecting this film to be pretty standard as far as sports movies go, but I was surprisingly quite moved by it. Ridley and the rest of the cast turn in great performances, and the swimming sequences are a major highlight. If nothing else, I hope that this film allows more people to hear Trudy Ederle's story, as it is very empowering and an important event in sports history. It is a film that could have afforded to take more risks, for sure, but it is hard to leave it feeling anything less than uplifted and inspired.

Rating: 3.5/5

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