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Young Woman and the Sea

Daisy Ridley battles jellyfish and the patriarchy with equal pluck and aplomb in “Young Woman and the Sea.”  

Ridley stars in this compelling biographical drama as Trudy Ederle, the first woman to swim across the English Channel. Ederle accomplished this feat in 1926—nearly a century before the open-water swimming triumph depicted in last year’s Oscar-nominated “Nyad,” to which comparisons are inevitable. For one thing, sports nutrition has come a long way since then. No one was lowering nets full of tea and fried chicken down to Diana Nyad as she made the arduous 100-mile journey from Cuba to Florida. 

That’s one of the most fascinating and frustrating elements of director Joachim Rønning’s film, based on sportswriter Glenn Stout’s book of the same name: The way in which the men in charge of this sport fundamentally misunderstand what Ederle and other female athletes need to train, compete and thrive. Also, they simply don’t care. Mostly, they’re downright hostile, even to Olympians. But as women, we’re resourceful, and Ederle consistently finds a way. Her quick wit and a strong sense of self buoy her when others underestimate her; the same fierce spark we saw in Ridley as Rey in the last three “Star Wars” movies burns brightly here, as well. 

“Young Woman and the Sea” is a worthwhile film for other young women to see, especially if they’re involved in sports. But its themes of daring and perseverance should resonate with anyone who’s ever gone after a goal. Rønning has found a solid balance here: He’s made a feel-good sports film that’s stirring without being schmaltzy, one that dips into genre tropes just enough to provide familiarity and structure.  

It’s also a thrilling adventure. The Norwegian filmmaker, whose Oscar-nominated “Kon-Tiki” from 2012 probably prepared him for the challenges of shooting in the water, makes us feel like we’re slicing through the waves alongside Ederle. Her passage across a bright-red jellyfish field is particularly harrowing, and the depth of her fear is evident, even in the dark of night, once she’s forced to go it alone in the shallows outside Dover. Cinematographer Oscar Faura (“The Impossible,” “The Imitation Game”) vividly depicts a variety of environments, from Ederle’s cramped, working-class upbringing to the sun-dappled vastness of the English Channel.  

But when we first see Ederle, as a sickly child in 1914 Manhattan, she’s on the brink of succumbing to measles. The adorable Olive Abercrombie plays her as a spirited tween who overcomes this physical adversity to pursue her dream of learning to swim, even though that’s something girls just don’t do, as her traditional, German-immigrant father (Kim Bodnia) repeatedly scolds her. Ridley takes over as a teenager, with Tilda Cobham-Hervey (Helen Reddy in the biopic “I Am Woman”) playing Trudy’s older sister, Meg. (They're well-cast as sisters and share a warm chemistry, but both actresses look too mature to be playing characters who are so much younger, which is distracting for a while.) Their elegant and headstrong mother (Jeanette Hain) insists that both daughters should become swimmers, which inspires the obligatory training montages in a tiny, indoor pool, led by the amusingly no-nonsense Lottie Epstein (Sian Clifford).  

The script from veteran screenwriter Jeff Nathanson (“Catch Me If You Can,” “The Terminal”) poignantly balances Trudy’s home life and her athletic ambitions – the friction between what’s expected of her as a butcher’s daughter and what she wants for herself. She’s fully aware of the path that’s been set for her—the arranged marriage to a nice German boy, the neighborhood she’d likely never leave—and she simply rejects it all. The way she holds her own at a hotel bar in the French coastal town that's the launching point for her 21-mile swim suggests she’ll be just fine before she ever sets foot in the water. Among the hard-drinking locals, Stephen Graham and Alexander Karim stand out in crucial roles as competitors who become unlikely allies when they recognize their own insane drive in her. 

Still, this is a movie in which the journey is the destination, quite literally. The low-tech method of reporting on her progress across the English Channel initially provides some laughs, then great tension. The ebullient sense of joy on the other hand is crowd-pleasing without being corny. “Young Woman and the Sea” doesn’t reinvent the genre in any way, but it keeps us engrossed for every strenuous stroke.

Christy Lemire

Christy Lemire is a longtime film critic who has written for RogerEbert.com since 2013. Before that, she was the film critic for The Associated Press for nearly 15 years and co-hosted the public television series "Ebert Presents At the Movies" opposite Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, with Roger Ebert serving as managing editor. Read her answers to our Movie Love Questionnaire here.

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Film Credits

Young Woman and the Sea movie poster

Young Woman and the Sea (2024)

Rated PG

129 minutes

Cast

Daisy Ridley as Trudy Ederle

Tilda Cobham-Hervey as Meg Ederle

Stephen Graham as Bill Burgess

Kim Bodnia as Henry Ederle

Jeanette Hain as Gertrude Ederle

Glenn Fleshler as James Sullivan

Director

Writer

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