Review | ‘Young Woman and the Sea’ claims its own lane alongside ‘Nyad’

Carrying on in the esteemed tradition of “Deep Impact” vs. “Armageddon” and “The Prestige” vs. “The Illusionist,” open-water swimming has carved out its own showdown of parallel Hollywood thinking: Diana Nyad vs. Gertrude Ederle.

The real-life athletes, of course, were far from rivals. In completing her headline-seizing swim from Cuba to Florida in 2013, Nyad rode a wave that Ederle started nearly a century earlier by becoming the first woman to swim across the English Channel. On the release calendar, however, the chronology has been flipped. Seven months after Netflix’s Oscar contender “Nyad” thrust the niche sport into the zeitgeist, Disney’s safely satisfying Ederle biopic “Young Woman and the Sea” is coasting into theaters.

If “Nyad” was a bruising taxonomy of perseverance, interested in the process behind such a feat and the cascade of failure that preceded it, director Joachim Rønning’s “Young Woman” charts a more traditional path to sweeping sentiment. Every maddening setback for Daisy Ridley’s Ederle is offset by a cathartic victory. Familial fissures are dutifully and promptly sealed. Is that a naysayer? Don’t fret — they’ll get their comeuppance. It’s rote, sure, but undeniably rousing.

As adapted by screenwriter Jeff Nathanson from Glenn Stout’s 2009 book of the same name, “Young Woman” paints Ederle (who went by Trudy) as the picture of persistence against all manner of medical, cultural and societal obstacles. When we flash back to 1914 and meet a young Trudy (Olive Abercrombie), bedridden with measles in her German American family’s modest New York City home, the child isn’t expected to survive the night. Once she does, Trudy proves luckier than the hundreds of women and children who drowned or burned in a nearby steamboat fire the same night she walked up to death’s door. (Nathanson fudges the timeline here; that real-life tragedy occurred a decade earlier.)

Thus Trudy pledges to learn to swim, spurning doctor’s orders to stay out of the water and protect what’s left of her measles-hampered hearing. By the time Ridley takes over the role in Trudy’s teenage years, she and her sister, Meg (Tilda Cobham-Hervey), are plucky young women who like to wade off the Coney Island shore and imagine racing in the male-only pools. Before long, the film reveals itself as a celebration of the human spirit, yes, but also a chronicle of a second-generation immigrant’s American Dream and the odds-defying assault on sexism she launched along the way.

The patriarchy pushers come from inside and outside the Ederle household. Trudy and Meg’s caring but condescending father (Kim Bodnia), a thickly accented butcher still rooted in Old World traditions, cackles when his wife (a wonderfully steely Jeanette Hain) declares that their daughters plan to join a swim team. Glenn Fleshler plays a two-faced U.S. swimming official who believes in Trudy’s Olympic potential one moment and speaks matter-of-factly about voting to keep women out of the pool the next. And Christopher Eccleston portrays an unabashedly bigoted coach whose attempts to sabotage Trudy are so overt that one wonders why she trusts a word he says.

But even as Nathanson’s script veers into trite territory, serving up and taking down its archetypal antagonists, Trudy’s rise against adversity inspires all the same. Rønning keeps the story churning along at a steady clip, and Amelia Warner’s soaring score plucks at the heartstrings. Winning performances from Sian Clifford as Trudy’s brash New York trainer and Stephen Graham as a grizzled English swimming vet also keep the film afloat.

When we get to the summer of 1926 and the historic day itself, open-water swimming’s eccentricities — guide boats, jellyfish, persnickety rules — should be familiar to anyone who watched “Nyad.” But Rønning also fixates on the stranger-than-fiction details that differentiate Trudy’s tale, from the porpoise fat she smeared across her body for warmth to the carrier pigeons that boat-bound reporters used to contact the mainland.

Nowadays, an electrifying crop of young American athletes — Caitlin Clark, Coco Gauff, Nelly Korda, Simone Biles and Katie Ledecky among them — are stoking passions for women’s athletics. As the film’s closing text credits its hero with “forever changing the course of women’s sports,” it’s not difficult to frame her accomplishments within that rising tide. There’s the true triumph: When Trudy Ederle made a splash, the ripple effects spanned generations.

PG. At area theaters. Contains some strong language and partial nudity. 129 minutes.

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