True Spirit

The story made world news. On 15 May 2010, 16-year-old Jessica Watson became the youngest person to circumnavigate the globe solo, non-stop and unassisted. It was just her, a 10-metre-long boat named Ella’s Pink Lady and the elements.

In the Netflix movie True Spirit, Teagan Croft plays Watson. Her mentor is a Ben Bryant (Cliff Curtis), an accomplished sailor weighed down by tragedy. Watson, one of four children to father Roger (Josh Lawson) and mother Julie (Anna Paquin), took to sailing at an early age. Having overcome dyslexia, she received heaps of encouragement from her mum, in particular.

True Spirit. Teagan Croft as Jessica Watson in True Spirit. Cr. Julian Panetta/Netflix © 2023

She was inspired by the exploits of German Australian sailor Jesse Martin and what he achieved on 31st October 1999, when he was 18. Watson’s eventual success wasn’t without controversy though. Many thought she was too young to attempt such a perilous journey. And her sea trial almost ended in disaster when Ella was struck by a cargo ship and dismasted. On the voyage itself, Watson overcame seven knockdowns (that is when a sailboat is knocked onto its side and touches the water) and monster waves.

True Spirit builds the drama and tension of the journey, as well as the lead up to it and the aftermath. That includes the media frenzy and the life and death decisions that had to be taken en route. The screenplay is by Rebecca Banner, Cathy Randall and director Sarah Spillane. The family is painted as close knit. Humour is introduced to aid the feel-good nature of the picture. The story unfolds sequentially, but also with flashbacks. It shows how doubts crept in and how Watson coped with two massive storms, one near the end of her trip that almost resulted in the record attempt being abandoned. So, not surprisingly, the voyage is an emotional one.

But for all of that, I thought there were many times that the movie appeared artificial. The best films give a sense that the performers are transposed into the characters. I never felt that in True Spirit. More than that, I thought that many of the characterisations were being carefully and noticeably stage managed. Among them was Todd Lasance as TV reporter Craig Atherton – a mainstay throughout the production – who undergoes an expected metamorphosis. Cliff Curtis realises Ben Bryant as a grizzled and grisly loner, with a strong sense of belief in Watson. Croft plays Watson as highly capable, someone who – with family encouragement – can achieve her dreams and goals. Alyla Browne as the younger Jessica is nothing if not persistent.

In short, I was looking for more depth from the offering, which has the look and feel of an old-style telemovie. With no great revelations, True Spirit becomes predictable.  But none of this takes anything away from Jessica Watson’s simply amazing achievement, which I – along with so many others – admire so much.

True Spirit is now showing on Netflix.

Alex First

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