[This is a re-post of my review from the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Maiden opens today in limited release.]
I’m a sucker for documentaries like Alex Holmes’ Maiden. Give me a good story of competition in the face of adversity featuring likable people, and I’m pretty much on board. With Maiden, Holmes tells two, intertwined stories. One is about a crew of sailors trying to win a yacht race around the world in 1989 (although “yacht” tends to carry the connotation of wealth, these boats were simple sailing vessels powered by wind and currents). The other story is how this crew was comprised entirely of women, and no one thought that women could work together or handle the physical rigors of the competition. Led by skipper Tracy Edwards, Maiden shows how this crew overcame both social and environmental obstacles to prove the world wrong.
Although Maiden includes interviews with most of the crew of the Maiden, the ship led by Edwards, she is the true protagonist of the story. Fleeing from an abusive stepfather when she was a teenager, Edwards discovered a love of sailing and became enchanted with the idea of participating in the Whitbread Round the World Race. In the past, the closest she came to this kind of participation was as a cook, but she was determined to prove that she could sail as well as any man. Edwards then works her ass off to assemble a crew, find sponsorship, and set out to not just compete in the Whitbread, but to win the race.
What I love most about Maiden is that it’s not a hagiography of Edwards. It doesn’t try to hold her up as some impossible ideal that us mere mortals cannot hope to emulate. Instead, the film acknowledges and embraces her faults. The film notes that at times her crew was divided against her in the run-up to the competition or how she could have a short temper due to the enormous pressure of trying to put together sponsorship for the Maiden. Maiden recognizes that hard things are hard, and that while talent and opportunity is all well and good, a large part of achievement is the inglorious work behind the scenes. It’s nice to think that sailing around the world is all about adventure, but someone has to figure out how to get the boat and how to pay for everything. Edwards put it all on her shoulders, and her crew acknowledges that she worked herself to the bone to make this dream a reality.
If putting together a ship to race in the Whitbread wasn’t tough enough, Edwards and the crew of the Maiden also had to endure sexism from both their peers and the press. It may seem surprising today that not a single brand would want to sponsor the first all-women yacht racing team, but it’s less surprising when you consider the era. Furthermore, the press looked at the Maiden not as a team of competitors but as a novelty act that would likely drop out before they even finished the first leg of the journey. Although all the ways the sexism presented itself is unsurprising, it’s no less of a motivator for the crew of the Maiden.
Maiden is about as straightforward as a documentary can get. There are clear goals, there are clear obstacles, the good guys and the bad guys are clearly delineated, and you know that at the end this will be a story about the triumph of the human spirit in the face of adversity. But Holmes puts it all together so well that you don’t really mind the predictability. Not every documentary has to upend the genre or feature some shocking revelation. Sometimes it’s enough to just have incredible people tell their story.
I walked out of Maiden feeling like I too could do something incredible like sail around the world before remembering that I have no sailing experience and would likely die a horrible death in the heart of an angry, unforgiving sea. But watching what Edwards and her crew accomplished lets me live vicariously through their achievements and cheer them on. Maiden is the best kind of crowd-pleasing documentary and shows what competitions can be at their best when everyone gets a chance to compete.