True Spirit is a sincere and heartfelt family film about the
heroic solo sailing adventure of teenage sailor Jessica Watson.
Perhaps the best compliment a movie can have is when viewers buy the book on which the story is based. That’s what happened after I watched True Spirit, a 2023 drama (Netflix) about the history-making sailing circumnavigation of the world by then 16-year old Jessica Watson (Teagan Croft, Titans, The Osiris Child). Watson’s story of individual courage, tenacity, and mental toughness allows this inspiring family drama to punch above its weight.
A Firestorm of Controversy
Watson’s quest generated a firestorm of controversy at the time (2009). Her journey raised important questions about parental responsibilities, teenage competence, mental health, and the risks young people undertake on extreme adventures.
To the filmmakers credit, True Spirit grapples with all these issues, and more, while delivering a solid drama. Watson’s accomplishment is nothing short of courageous and awe-inspiring.
While uneven and choppy at times, True Spirit rises above a simple sea-faring tale of skill, mental toughness, and perseverance. Just nine people under 21 years old have circumnavigated the Earth solo in a sailboat. Just two completed the challenge nonstop without assistance. Watson is one of them.
When combined with the daunting obstacles thrown at her by mother nature, massive waves, and isolation, her tale is both inspiring and sobering.
Teenage Tenacity or Immaturity?
Watson was a homeschooled 16-year old when she departed Sydney, Australia. She finished 211 days later, just a few days shy of her 17th birthday. In her book, she writes she never regretted her decision to make the journey. Later passages in the book casts some doubt on that claim, at least at the most trying times of her journey. In fact, the movie does an excellent job showing the mental and physical challenges she faced while sailing 19,000 miles alone.
Moreover, her start as a solo captain was ominous. In her first overnighter to test out her boat, Ella’s Pink Lady, she was nearly sunk by a freighter in the middle of the night. She had settled for a brief nap, but failed to set her alarms.
Not surprisingly, she embarked on the round-the-world journey under the specter of poor judgment.
Facing Down Mother Nature
But Watson was facing more than just bad luck. Her dyslexia led to misreporting her navigational coordinates and other challenges reading navigational charts. Over 12,000 miles of coastal and ocean sailing experience can compensate for only so much.
After repairs, and unwavering support from her sponsors, Australian skin-care company Ella Bache, Watson doubled down on her quest, leaving Sydney Harbour on October 18, 2009.
She faced daunting challenges. Ella’s Pink Lady experienced seven “knockdowns” when the boat was thrown on its side by unexpected massive waves. Several of these knockdowns pushed the boat onto its beam at 90 degree angles or more. More than once, the mast dipped precariously below the waves.
The Ocean is a Fickle Mistress
The sea can be a fickle mistress, however. One of the more effective scenes in True Spirit occurs when Watson is pushed to a mental breaking point after enduring nine days of windless, calm seas in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.
Throughout the preparations leading up the voyage, Watson’s parents wrestle with their responsibilities and obligations as parents. Her mother, Julie (Anna Paquin, The Piano), is supportive despite the risks. Her father (Josh Lawson, House of Lies, Mortal Kombat) is more skeptical but reluctantly lets her go.
An Uneven But Inspiring Movie
Artistically, the story sometimes seems unconnected. Flashbacks reveal Watson’s backstory through short vignettes. These tidbits of information are not seamlessly tied together. While relevant, the need to recall them might take viewers outside the story despite fine acting by Teagan Croft, Anna Paquin, and much of the cast.
This unevenness keeps the True Spirit from rising above an inevitably conventional and predictable plot. The movie stays largely true to the actual events and drama experienced by Watson during her journey.
Director and co-writer Sarah Spillane takes a few artistic liberties. While the events depicted in the film are true, they are rearranged to maximize the drama. The movie also understates Watson’s actual experience and training, detailed extensively in her book, although not the degree of public controversy over her quest.
While Watson clearly circumnavigated the southern hemisphere, her accomplishments are not widely recognized or acknowledged by everyone in the sailing community. Many, including the World Sailing Speed Record Council, require 21,600 mile circumnavigation while Watson’s fell short at 18,582.
Nevertheless, her accomplishment and the courage to attempt the solo sail were extraordinary. True Spirit tells Jessica Watson’s story well, the courage it took to attempt it, and the tenacity necessary to complete it. The truth of her tale is nothing short of inspiring.
Overall True Spirit is a sincere and heartfelt film, suitable for family viewing even if it doesn’t break artistic ground. In other words, it’s a perfect Netflix film.
For more articles on sailing experiences and films, check out Channeling Isabella + Sailing on this blog.