The story of the youngest person to sail solo, non-stop around the world, True Spirit, is now streaming, but should you give it a watch?
Teagan Croft (HBO Max’s Titans) stars in True Spirit as 16-year-old Jessica Watson based on a true story biopic of her life as the youngest person to sail solo, non-stop, and unassisted around the world.
Alongside Teagan, the film also stars Anna Paquin (True Blood, X-Men) as Jessica’s mother, Julie, Cliff Curtis (Whale Rider, Avatar: The Way of Water) as Jessica’s sailing mentor Ben Bryant, & Josh Lawson (Cobra Kai, House of Lies) as Jessica’s father, Roger.
The film is co-written and directed by Sarah Spillane, whose last feature, 2013’s Around The Block, also dipped into the inspirational film category with its story of an American teacher in Australia who encourages her at-risk students by launching a version of Hamlet with an all-Aboriginal cast.
Of the many varieties of inspirational films, especially sports & survival-related stories, True Spirit falls in the smoothed-out and sterilized made-for-TV version of the category. Unlike the vastly more cinematic & impressive Netflix sports biopic from last year, The Swimmers, this film has very little edge, personal connection, or larger-picture storytelling that can elevate the better efforts of the genre.
The lack of personal connections are the toughest pill to swallow in this one, as most of the film consists of Sat Phone calls from Jessica back home while out at sea alone.
While the occasional teary-eyed desperate call to Anna Paquin’s mother character will register some emotion from any parent, the real missed opportunity for story depth & character growth is in the deftly handled bond between the underutilized Cliff Curtis as former sailor turned mentor Ben Bryant and Jessica herself. He trains her from a very young age to get her to where she is at the moment of her historic voyage. Yet, the relationship feels cold & pedestrian, including a stretch of the film where he bails on her completely and tracks her from his boat instead of her family’s home where he had previously set up camp. When he loses his temper and breaks off communication, we as the audience, should truly feel that loss & hurt for Jessica, and the movie doesn’t pay that off.
The lead performance from Teagan Croft, as Jessica, didn’t seem to register for me either.
While serviceable in selling the audience as a competent sailor, I rarely felt she met the emotional ranges this movie required. This is largely apparent in scenes where the family is living & dying with every call back from highly dangerous moments during her journey. She never seems to match the intensely dramatic moments and rarely brings you into her train of thinking. Croft had her most success in the film’s most desperate junctures, where the direction takes her into a heightened emotional state. For example, the scenes where she is stranded at sea for over a week with no wind is some of her best work, as she has to slowly ramp up the hopelessness & despair over a long stretch of time. However, once the wind starts back up, the performance and the film itself ironically fall flat and never bring us to a relieving crescendo that launches us back into the end of her voyage.
The strength of the film comes from the VFX & stunt crew, as the storm-drenched scenes pack a punch. The best sequence in the entire movie is the final storm at sea, where the boat takes on near 60 ft waves and puts Jessica in her most perilous situation so close to the end of her journey. However, these scenes are few and far between and don’t save the film from its largely unremarkable result.
The true mark of a biopic is how you feel when you see footage of the real-life person they are depicting in action. Do you feel like the film heightened the experience and made it more cinematic? Or do you feel like a documentary could have done a better job of telling the tale? At the closing moments of this film, I definitely felt more engaged when the footage of the real Jessica Watson was displayed. I felt the raw energy of the amateur video recording. I felt the authenticity of the actual boat used to take Jessica on her voyage and the lived-in quality of its inner living quarters. I wondered whether I should check out the television documentary 210 Days about Jessica’s solo global circumnavigation, narrated by Sir Richard Branson and whether this movie works enough to inspire the next Jessica Watson of the world.
Overall, the story of Jessica Watson and her historic accomplishments is worthy of telling and worthy of adapting to film, but I wished for the film to meet the dramatic highs and lows that she absolutely had to endure on the high seas. The output is family-friendly and will appeal on an educational & potentially inspirational level for some, but I wonder whether the documentary or her TEDx talk would be just as good to better for such a purpose.
Watch True Spirit on Netflix If You Like
- Blue Miracle
- Walk, Ride, Rodeo
- Skater Girl
- Soul Surfer
MVP of True Spirit
Cliff Curtis as Ben Bryant.
In a sadly underdeveloped role, Cliff Curtis did his best to bring a character of any depth & scale into this film. As Jessica Watson’s mentor Ben Bryant, he portrayed a deeply wounded former sailor whose loss at sea has shaped his personality into a dour, emotionally reluctant man that eventually accepts the warmth of the Watson family and finds himself back in command of his life.
PLAY, PAUSE, OR STOP?
The story of Jessica Watson is worth a look, but it may prove too generic as a film product for much of its intended audience.