You may have already heard this story: A fifteen-year-old girl wins a legal battle versus the Dutch government to stay in the custody of her parents and is therefore able to set out on her 40-foot sailboat in an attempt to become the youngest person to ever sail around the Earth, solo. If it sounds fantastic, it is. Inspirational? Yep. Daunting? Check. A bit terrifying? That too. But could this really make an interesting documentary considering she is on the boat by herself? In her fascinating and beautifully moving film Maidentrip, young director Jillian Schlesinger answers that question with a resounding, "Yes!"
Part of the secret to Schlesinger's success is in Laura Dekker's decision to not simply sail around the world at a breakneck pace. Instead, Dekker takes her sweet time, stopping at ports of call for months at a time, and making the most of her trip. This allows Schlesinger to catch up with Dekker and speak with her about her journey.
But the majority of the film is all Laura. Alone for months on the open seas, Dekker forms a relationship with the camera and uses it as both a diary and a companion. Holding the camera at arm's length, Dekker speaks directly to the lens as if she's chatting with a friend. Setting it down around the boat, we see Dekker as she goes about her routine; cooking pancakes, checking her rigging, or just gazing out across an endless ocean. Already averse to media and used to being alone with the camera, Schlesinger eschews typical interview scenarios by just giving Dekker a list of topics to discuss with the camera on her own.
What emerges is a compelling portrait of an extraordinary human being. Laura Dekker may be doing something that no fifteen-year-old has ever done before, but that doesn't make her any older than those years. And while Maidentrip is a remarkable tale of accomplishment, it is more so a celebration of the incredible promise of youth. As the open seas become a metaphor, Laura Dekker sails on in any direction the winds blow her, blissfully unaware of just how elusive the freedom she enjoys may someday be. Just beautiful.
This review originally ran as part of our coverage of the SXSW 2013 film festival. Maidentrip opens at NY's IFC Center this Friday January 17 from First Run Features.