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OPINION | PLATFORM DIVING: ‘True Spirit’ packs emotional wallop

by Courtney Lanning | February 3, 2023 at 1:31 a.m.
Sail away: The story of how Australian teenager Jessica Watson (Teagan Croft) became the youngest person ever to sail solo, nonstop around the world is told in the Netflix film “True Spirit.”

Netflix has apparently decided to double down on movies about girls who must navigate stormy seas. A few months ago, I reviewed "The Swimmers," based on the true story of sisters who swam a raft of refugees through a storm to reach Greece.

And today Netflix released "True Spirit," also a film based on a true story. This one follows an Aussie girl named Jessica Watson (Teagan Croft) who, at 16, attempted to become the youngest person to circumnavigate the globe without stops or any assistance. Turns out the real Watson sailed around the world unassisted on her journey, but through some technical rigmarole, didn't meet the exact definition of circumnavigation.

Thankfully, the film doesn't touch on this, instead focusing on the young captain's obstacles and eventual 2010 triumph.

Cliff Curtis plays Watson's sailing coach, Ben Bryant. Croft certainly carries the tenacity required of a girl determined to sail around the world at 16, and Curtis perfectly plays the role of a curmudgeon coach who slowly warms up to Watson's family as her journey unfolds.

The story begins with a jarring event. Watson, on her only practice run, has a collision with a freighter, and it cripples her sailboat. I appreciated director Sarah Spillane beginning the story here, providing a bit of excitement that immediately lays out the dangers of the sea and how many hundreds of things can go wrong on the water.

It's the next 20 minutes or so that seem to drag a little as we're introduced to Watson's family, with her father played by Josh Lawson, and her mother portrayed by Anna Paquin. This part of the film spends a lot of time focusing on media criticism of Watson's plans, in particular, highlighting an aggressive reporter named Craig Atherton (Todd Lasance).

Now, I have no idea what the media landscape is like in the land Down Under, and I don't know how much scrutiny Watson and her family faced in 2009 when she planned this voyage. I'm sure it was more than they wanted to endure. But the film gives a little too much time and energy to its media antagonist when I would have appreciated Watson setting sail a few minutes sooner.

Of course, once Watson does set sail, the movie finds its pace with a careful blend of both the wonders of being on the open sea (watching whales, sleeping under the stars) and the dangers as our hero has to overcome storms and endure the stifling silence of being alone for days on end in still waters when the wind won't blow.

Croft nails the role, especially the suffocating loneliness that would break the mind of any strong-willed adult, let alone a teenager.

It's in the emotional waves that "True Spirit" finds its greatest moments. The Watson family comes together and has magnificent chemistry when their daughter is out there facing the oceans with just her training to guide her back home. When Watson was morose, I found myself on the verge of tears, and when her family celebrated success, I found myself elated. These actors played off one another brilliantly to create a current capable of carrying any viewer through sentimental highs and lows.

I'm not sure how much of it was planned, but I see tidbits of other movies in "True Spirit." There are harrowing moments of seafaring strife where Watson has to do battle against storms and swells that appear to draw on 2000's "The Perfect Storm." And in the case of an aggressive reporter hounding a young hero setting off on a journey to prove herself, I was reminded of Kevin Spacey's role in 1994's "Iron Will."

Within Watson's solitary journey into nature, I saw pieces of 2007's "Into the Wild." I'm sure my contemporaries in this film section would have older movies to draw upon in comparison, but this just comes with the territory of being the youngest here.

"True Spirit" has one or two corny lines where the script teeters toward preachy, but those quickly disappear into the performances of each character. I've got no clue which shots were actual sailing on the open water and what was done in a studio, but visually, the film holds together well, even during the storm scenes.

On a weekend with an M. Night Shyamalan blockbuster hitting theaters, Netflix offers up a surprisingly emotional title the entire family can enjoy together.

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