In a movie season drenched in nostalgia-fueled pandering, the most thrilling throwback is a story few viewers are likely to remember: In 1989, the first all-woman crew to sail in the Whitbread Round the World Race, a grueling, nearly yearlong regatta that took competitors from Southampton, England, to Uruguay to Australia to New Zealand and beyond, over the course of six punishing legs.
"Maiden," a terrific documentary about the historic event, takes its name from the women's boat, skippered by an indomitable 24-year-old named Tracy Edwards. As the prime narrator of the film, Edwards makes a candid, charismatic protagonist (Judi Dench could convincingly play her today). It's her own interior journey - not to mention the superhuman physical demands of a race that ran for 33,000 nautical miles and included treacherous seas, weather and technical difficulties - that makes "Maiden" not just a ripping yarn but a meaningful one. Like "RBG" last year, it's a story that reminds women - and men - not only how far we've come in one generation but how far we've yet to go.
Directed with unfussy directness by Alex Holmes, "Maiden" benefits from a wealth of visual images to convey its amazing story. Beginning with Edwards' early life - which went from idyllic to troubled with the arrival of an abusive, alcoholic stepfather - the film follows her to Greece, where in the 1980s she found fellowship with a group of expat "misfits, gypsies and nomads," eventually finding work as a cook on charter sailboats. When she applied for work on a crew preparing to enter the Whitbread, she was told that "girls are for when you get into port." Undeterred, Edwards vows to put together a crew on her own and sets out to find financing. "Money," Edwards observes, "tends to follow men."
Edwards eventually found a backer, whose identity is just one astounding fact among many that make "Maiden" a continually surprising and gripping tale. No computer-generated gimcracks or manipulations here: The special effects are forces of nature both aquatic and human, as Edwards and her 12-person crew personify fearlessness, friendship and the fruits of being able to ignore hostility and condescension and simply get on with it. "It," in this case, might mean tacking closely to one's closest competitors in a nerve-racking match of tactical wits or fighting ice, snow and imposing icebergs in the Southern Ocean, all on little or no sleep, for days at a time. "The ocean's always trying to kill you," Edwards says matter-of-factly.
"Maiden" obeys all of the tenets of the classic David-and-Goliath competition movie, including life-or-death stakes, volatile interpersonal dynamics, extreme peril and unexpected reversals and victories. But even at its most visceral and exciting, it's the emotion at the story's core, and the higher principles at work, that make it transcendent. True to the adage, the ocean didn't kill Edwards and her crew; it made them stronger. And the story of "Maiden's" voyage makes us feel stronger, too.