Friday, June 14, 2024

Young Woman and the Sea

Apparently, this was originally slated to go straight to Disney+, but someone at Disney either figured "we spent some money on this and maybe it would be a good idea to build Daisy Ridley up before New Jedi Order" or, as I've read, they figured it would be a good tie-in for the Olympics, but in either case, it's not like they did much to promote it or release it wide. Which is a shame, because it's pretty darn good, although I suppose it's also the sort of thing people have been trained to wait for streaming on.

Apparently, it was set up at Paramount for a while before moving to Disney, and I'm kind of surprised that Universal didn't pick it up. It fits Disney's brand better, I suppose, but Universal and NBC are sister companies, and not only has NBC/Peacock had a stranglehold on the Olympics for decades, but all the radio news in the movie is from the National Broadcasting System. The cross-promotion seems natural!

(Aside - how excited do people get about the Olympics these days? It was a big deal when I was a kid, but now I regularly ignore it and hear little but how NBC smothers any actual sports under human-interest stories and ignores everyone but Americans.)

I'm guessing it won't hang around much longer than this coming coming week (and that seems like of lucky), but it's worth recommending. I bet my sporty tween nieces would like it.

Young Woman and the Sea

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 9 June 2024 in AMC Boston Common #6 (first-run, DCP)

Movies like this used to be Disney's bread and butter: Earnest tales of adventure and overcoming obstacles with young heroes and little material that might give parents pause. Young Woman and the Sea may be longer and more elaborate than many of its forebears, but it's got the same quality of nobody seeming embarrassed to be making family fare,and winds up surprisingly rousing and entertaining without having to give the audience a wink to show how clever they are.

It introduces young Trudy (Olive Abercrombie) and Meg Ederle (Lilly Aspell) in 1914 New York, a freighter burning in the distance as their immigrant parents (Kim Bodnia & Jeanette Hain) fear Trudy will die of the measles. She proves too stubborn for that, and she doesn't stop being stubborn when mother Gertrud insists on Meg and their younger brother Henry receiving swimming lessons but attempts to exclude her because measles survivors risk losing their hearing from the activity. The sisters take to it with a passion, and by the time they are older, Gertrud signs them up for a team coached by Lotte Epstein (Sian Clifford). Meg (Tilda Cobham-Hervey) is initially seen as the team's strongest member, but soon Trudy (Daisy Ridley) is setting records, eventually recruited for the 1924 Olympics in Paris. Neither the sponsor (Glenn Fleshler) nor the coach (Christopher Eccleston) actually believes in women's athletics, but Trudy nevertheless sets her sights on swimming the English Channel, an oft-deadly pursuit that only a handful of men have managed in 1926.

It's odd to say, perhaps, but the way that the film handles the sexism at the heart of its story is kind of impressive; it could often be presented as so overwhelming that Trudy and Meg would have to do something that seems truly impossible to chip away at it, or seem like they're undoing sexism all by themselves. Instead, though, they show the 1920s as a sort of inflection point, where there are a lot of silly assumptions and attitudes persisting but not only can one see a space for someone like Trudy, but where her love for swimming can exist as its own thing rather than as a response to the nonsense: She swims because she loves it and is naturally competitive, as opposed to as an escape from what she deals with on land.

That's all important because it gives writer Jeff Nathanson (adapting Glenn Stout's book) and director Joachim Rønning more room to make a good sports movie. Swimming isn't necessarily the easiest activity to make exciting, since there's limits on where you can put the camera without the shot feeling contrived when someone is doing laps - I imagine that it's a bit of a filmmaking challenge to get across the emotional intensity of a bunch of people face down in the water - and so rely on live commentary and montage a lot until it becomes a distance event, when they can open the image up, center the seemingly tiny Trudy against the vast ocean, and face her with a variety of challenges, from boats coming too close to how one can get completely turned around in the dark to jellyfish. They also give the audience a fair amount of credit for connecting necessary dots, from how Trudy's works stoking the boiler where the women practice is probably building a fair amount of strength to how the line between being very good and great can be a heck of a thing for two people to find between them.

In the middle, there's Daisy Ridley, the only person in the film you'd potentially call a star, and it's been kind of interesting to see her carve out this niche of women who are wired differently since Star Wars. Trudy doesn't seem quite so peculiar as her characters from Sometimes I Think About Dying and The Marsh King's Daughter, but she probably was relative to her time, and neither she nor Rønning seems worried about making Trudy's focus something that other people will have to work around if they want to be close to her. Indeed, it often seems that the only person she is consistently playing off comfortably is Tilda Cobham-Hervey as the teen/adult Meg, who clearly understands Trudy's passions and can serve as a sort of bridge to those who don't. One can see some of where Trudy comes from in the parents played by Kim Bodnia and Jeanette Hain, but there's always a bit of distance between them - they love Trudy but can't fully enter her world. The coaches played by Sian Clifford, Christopher Eccleston, and Stephen Graham can, perhaps, but they're different sorts of extreme personalities.

It's a terrific looking picture for something with just the one major star and originally destined for a streamer (and likely not one of Disney+'s tentpole releases); you can never really know these days how much was shot in a big green room and how much is finding spots in Bulgaria that can pass of the New York City of a century ago with some clever redressing, but it's a convincing-enough world, and the aquatic scenes are equally great. It's perhaps longer than this sort of film traditionally would be, but seldom feels flabby or drawn out or flabby.

Young Woman and the Sea is kind of a modest movie, but it does what it's supposed to do and does it well. We could probably use this sort of kid-friendly adventure which doesn't rely on visual effects and fantasy being in theaters from major studios a little more often.

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