“True Spirit” is a plucky feel-good tale of a teen girl’s quest to be the youngest to ever sail “Around Alone.” Directed and acted with a light touch, packed with bubbly pop music montages and finished off with a dollop of deep sea melodrama, what this “You sail like a girl” lacks in surprises it makes up in heart.
As any old salt would tell you, sailing solo around the world is the ultimate test of a seafarer. Australian Jessica Watson set her mind on doing it in her tweens and took her shot at being the youngest ever to solo circumnavigate in her teens.
She was inspired by Jesse Martin, who finished his “nonstop/unassisted” circumnavigation in 1999, in his late teens. Watson would do it even younger. Using the same world class bluewater yacht, a Sparkman & Stephens 34 footer, she’d set out in 2009 from her home port of Sydney, Australia, with the goal of making history.
Aylya Brown plays the very young Jessica, daughter of an unconventional Australian family, taught to sail young, a child with goals and her eye on one reluctant old salt (Cliff Curtis) who might be her coach, a veteran offshore racer with a bit of sailing PTSD about a race that went wrong.
He’s a fictional character based on Jessica’s real coach, Bruce Arms, but exaggerated for cinematic effect. Curtis is perfectly engaging in the part.
The teenaged Jessica is played by Teagan Croft of “Titans,” sort of the prototypical winsome Aussie blonde of film, TV, tennis and surfing competitions.
The teen Jessica never shook the more childish Jessica’s chip on her shoulder, that “No one thinks I’m big or strong enough to do anything.”
She’d show them. She’d show us. She rounded up sponsors, a boat, the requisite sailing experience to attempt this “world record” (there are rules) and a lot of controversy.
Think about how much you worry about your teen driving on her or his own at that age, the carelessness/recklessness every parent fears. Now imagine letting her tackle “the four capes” and the perils — gigantic waves, ship traffic, etc — of the Southern Ocean in a small sailboat far out of the reach of help.
There were doubters, child welfare workers and public officials in Australia who wanted to stop this excessive bit of free range parenting. And then there’s the snide TV reporter (Todd Lasance) who seems to revel in her every misstep.
Taking a nap while on an overnight on a trial run offshore in “Ella’s Pink Lady,” she collides with an offshore freighter, which becomes press conference news.
No matter. Jessica will not give up “the magic and allure of the sea.” Her mother (Oscar winner Anna Paquin, no stranger to this Girl Powered Genre herself, thanks to “Fly Away Home”) tells her to “celebrate the moments, and don’t forget to dance in the rain.”
Her coach, who will be in sat-phone contact with her daily, tells her to “sing” to relieve the tedium. “We’re sailors. It’s what we’re supposed to do.”
She’ll record video along the way, her big sister will run her blog and she’ll be an inspiration to girls everywhere…if she makes it.
There are cute bits — the “Toast to King Neptune” ritual of crossing the equator (a requirement of any “around alone” attempt) — David Bowie sing-alongs (her coach lives aboard his yacht, “Bowie).
And there are hints of life passing by back on shore while Jessica is fighting storms, being becalmed in the doldrums, communing with whales and patching the boat.
Solo circumnavigations have been a thing since Joshua Slocum set out from Boston in 1895. By the 1960s, it had become a sailing endurance race, and the “Five Oceans” race is held every four years since the 1980s.
But as we learn every so often, it can end in tragedy. There have been films about Donald Crowhurst’s ill-fated attempt and about the first “youth” circumnavigation, Robin Lee Graham’s five year adventure (ports of call, romance, pet cats), “The Dove.” It’s even been the narrative hook for a refugee drama.
“True Spirit” doesn’t add anything fresh to the genre, just fresh faces and Aussie pluck, with even the tunes — girl-powered “Brighter Than the Sun” (an anachronism, as it came out two years after “Pink” set sail) and the Bowie choice– pretty much on the nose.
But that’s what “feel good” movies often are, comfort food, with the occasional surprise, a “darkest hour,” a little pathos and a lot of heart.
Cast: Teagan Croft, Cliff Curtis, Josh Lawson, Aylya Brown and Anna Paquin
Credits: Directed by Sarah Spillane, scripted by Cathy Randall, Rebecca Banner and Sarah Spillane, based on the memoir by Jessica Watson. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:49