Jessica Watson was 16 when she sailed solo around the world, a feat that captured international attention and made her a hero in Australia.
The teen left her home in Sydney in the fall of 2009 and returned home seven months later, just before her 17th birthday.
Her extraordinary achievement was featured in the documentary 210 Days: Around the World with Jessica Watson; now True Spirit, a Netflix feature starring Teagan Croft as Watson, covers the same ground, only with hair and makeup.
True Spirit — that’s the title of Watson’s book about her journey — is directed by Sarah Spillane.
The film begins with a capsule version of Watson’s childhood on the water and her obsession from age 12 onward with sailing and the ocean.
Her goal of a solo circumnavigation is inspired by the Jesse Martin story; he sailed around the world in 1999 and became the youngest person ever to do so, an achievement Watson is determined to replicate.
The action begins with a mishap — Watson’s little sailboat, called Pink, gets hit and bashed up by a huge cargo ship while she’s out on the ocean doing a trial run for her trip around the globe.
Much media hubbub follows: is she too young to undertake this voyage? Are her parents irresponsible? Is she risking her life?
Yes to all of the above, but never mind. The indomitable spirit will out, and all that. With the help of sea-faring volunteers who help fix up her little boat and some inspirational pop music, Watson prepares to sail around the world.
At Watson’s emotional leave-taking for months alone at sea, her mother (Anna Paquin) says, “Watch the sunsets, celebrate the milestones and don’t forget to dance in the rain.”
Chekhov’s Gun, people: waving dialogue like that around in the first act generally dictates barfing by the third.
Watson’s journey is one part harrowing storm survival (with the foreshadowed seasickness), one part flashback to plucky youth, and two parts teen emotion.
Dolphins swim with her boat. Whales breach nearby. At home, her family and her taciturn sailing coach/life guide (Cliff Curtis, wasted here) wait for her twice-daily phone call and wring their hands.
Her voyage is tracked on a huge map of the world hanging in the Watson family home.
In the background, a mob of pesky Australian reporters waits to see what will happen to Watson, moving from initial disapproval over the risks she faces to actively rooting for her.
True Spirit has some moving emotional moments, none of them helped along by a score full of in-your-face pop songs; the movie plays far too much like an after-school TV special.
It’s ironic that Watson’s story of raw courage and physicality has been tidied up and served with extra cheese for people sitting on a couch at home, but at least it may inspire some to investigate her journey further and learn more.
At the end of her epic adventure — in real life and in the movie — Watson sailed into Sydney harbour where some 80,000 people were gathered to cheer for her.
A flotilla of small boats waited for her; she wept as she set food on dry land and fell into the arms of her parents.
There’s a mix of movie magic and real footage at the end of True Spirit and it’s fascinating to watch — confirmation that truth is stranger than fiction. And oftentimes more engaging.
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