Sixteen is often the age where you start dreaming of striking out on your own, of trying something just a little bit dangerous—though you still want to know that your parents have your back if you fall. That’s the appeal of True Spirit, a movie based on the real-life adventures of Jessica Watson, who at age 16 became the youngest person to sail around the world solo. Directed by Australian filmmaker Sarah Spillane, the picture is appealingly breezy, though it does have its share of tense moments involving killer waves and charcoal-toned stormy skies. Mostly, it’s an anthem of teenage independence and daring, the story of one young woman who set her sights on a dream while still a child and willed it into reality just a few years later. Not every teenager could pull it off: this is a story about believing in possibilities rather than being constrained by limits, and about respecting nature while also reveling in its wild, unpredictable glory.
Jessica—played as a young child by Alyla Browne and as a teenager by the capable actress Teagan Croft—has always lived by or on the water, and has always loved sailing. She may struggle with dyslexia, but she understands the sea and its power. She’s particularly enthralled by the story of teenage sailor Jesse Martin, who in 1999 became the youngest sailor to cross the globe solo. He was 18; she wants to break his record. She saves her pennies for a boat, the Pink Lady.
Julian Panetta/NetflixCroft, as Watson, facing threatening seas
Read more reviews by Stephanie Zacharek
Most of that setting is fleshed out in flashback scenes: the movie opens in 2009, as 16-year-old Jessica attempts a solo trial run in advance of her big adventure. She has an adviser, Ben Bryant (Cliff Curtis), an ace sailor who long ago gave up on his own dreams, but who has agreed to help Jessica fulfill hers. Her parents (played by Anna Paquin and Josh Lawson), have also encouraged her all along, even though the media slams them for allowing a minor to embark on an adventure that could endanger her life.
And the trial run, it turns out, is a near disaster: Jessica seems so excited by the notion of being out on the sea by herself—we see her dancing around the tiny cabin in a pop-star reverie, singing into her toothbrush—that she forgets to set an important alarm and ends up being sideswiped by a cargo ship. She makes it back to shore, but her boat is badly damaged. And news reporters are waiting for her, practically rejoicing in her failure: the most smug of these is an uptight dude in a trim, tiny suit (Todd Lasance), who’s convinced Jessica doesn’t have what it takes to pull off the grand feat she’s assigned herself.
Read more: The 49 Most Anticipated Movies of 2023
Well, she’ll show him! And she does, 210 days later, days of glorious puffy clouds and unfettered joy but also of worrying windless stretches and angry red skies. At one point Jessica peeks out her cabin window and recites the old maxim, “Red at night, sailor’s delight, red at morning, sailor’s warning,” and boy, does that turn out to be apt: the storm that ensues is a doozy, its waves tossing her tiny vessel as a cat dipsy-doodles a toy mouse. Jessica does everything right, lowering the sails, releasing the drogue (a parachute-like device designed to stabilize the boat) and strapping herself in for safety—and still, there are dangers she can’t account for. The movie rides this unpredictability like a surfboard.
Because this is a true story, recorded by the person who lived it, we know how it ends. But that doesn’t make the threats faced by a teenager alone at sea any less treacherous. True Spirit also deals realistically with Jessica’s low points. She keeps a blog to record her experience, and at one point tearfully confesses her loneliness: she misses the passel of siblings she’s left behind at home, and there are days when she wonders why she’s invested so much in this risky undertaking. But most of the time, she relishes the small experiences that come wrapped up in this big one, cooking her own meals on a tiny burner or going above deck to shave her legs in the sun. True Spirit makes freedom on the high seas look like fun, a far cry from staring at a screen in your bedroom, waiting for your life to begin.