True Spirit review – Netflix’s Jessica Watson biopic is cheesy and mawkish

There is much to be inspired by in the real-life story of Jessica Watson, who, at 16, famously set out to become the youngest person to sail solo, nonstop and unassisted around the world. But translating that solitude-filled 210 day voyage into interesting drama for the screen is no easy task - as director Sarah Spillane’s gloppy, goofily executed and terribly twee Netflix film reminds us. It’s impossible to predict how any title will fare on the streaming platform, but I’ll be surprised if this one isn’t quickly lost in the algorithms.

Every narrative involving arduously long trips across intimidatingly large bodies of water must at some point reiterate the traveller’s loneliness. In the 2003 Australian thriller Visitors, Radha Mitchell delivers a rousing performance as a young woman also sailing solo around the world, whose longing for conversational engagement leads to rather trippy outcomes: not only does she talk to her cat, but her cat talks back (and then the apparitions arrive …). And in the near-silent 2013 survival drama All is Lost, Robert Redford attempts to communicate with the outside world via the ol’ message in a bottle, putting a handwritten note in a jar then tossing it into the ocean.

In True Spirit, Watson – played by Teagan Croft – lies alone in bed, staring at messages written on the wall (including one from Dad reading “STAY STRONG”) before recording a teary video. Things get worse when the protagonist answers a call from her mother, Julie (the legendary Anna Paquin, who won an Oscar for The Piano), during which her pain at being alone is eclipsed by our terror at the cheesy dialogue. Bathed in contemplative blue light, Julie, whose dialogue sounds as if she’s reading from a greetings card, recalls a song they used to listen to together and instructs her daughter to “search for the brightest star in the sky … every time you look at it, know that I’m here, at home, staring at that same star.”

Related: Jessica Watson, the girl who sailed round the world, comes home to cheers

True Spirit is not just mawkish; there are other problems in the writing. It’s common for films to deliver exposition through dialogue-imparting significant backstory information through conversation. The art is not necessarily to avoid this, but to conceal it. Here the screenwriters – Spillane, Rebecca Banner and Cathy Randall, adapting Watson’s memoir of the same name – seem to barely even try. Note the following interaction between Jessica as a child (Alyla Browne) and the man who becomes her coach and mentor, Ben Bryant (played by Cliff Curtis, who was excellent recently in the New Zealand film Muru).

Jessica: Are you Ben Bryant?

Ben: No.

Jessica: Yes you are. You lost the tip of your pinky finger sailing in Antarctica.

Ben: I didn’t lose it. I put it in the drawer.

Jessica: Cool. You’ve done 12 Sydney to Hobarts and circumnavigated solo three times.

The information drop in that last line stands out like a sore thumb (or a severed pinky finger). It’s as if the writers said: to hell with it, who needs a segue? The film’s opening scene is just as bad – one of those “let’s explain everything about my life” spiels, accompanied by the visual cliche of slightly fuzzy-looking home video footage. “I grew up on the Sunshine Coast in Australia, which means my family and I were never far from the ocean,” the protagonist begins. “If we weren’t in it, we were on it,” she continues, reflecting on “the magic and allure of the sea” and how “I could hear the ocean calling my name,” before Empire of the Sun’s Walking on a Dream kicks in. Such heart-on-sleeve reflections might work on the page, but film is another matter entirely.

Spillane’s last film, 2013 drama Around the Block, starred Christian Ricci as a US high school teacher situated in Redfern and also opened with a slab of neat voiceover. “We didn’t choose to be born, but can we choose to be free?” Ricci’s character ruminates, setting that film off on a wobbly, pseudophilosophical path.

Like True Spirit, Around the Block is also riddled with cliches, but Ricci and its young cast (including Cleverman’s Hunter Page-Lochard and Mystery Road: Origin’s Mark Coles Smith) manage to nudge the production towards dramatically credible spaces.

The cast of True Spirit had no such chance: the schmaltz and mushiness overpower everything. The film’s daytime-soap vibes render an unquestionably inspiring true story into an experience that feels so false, so rinky-dink, I had to remind myself it was based on real life.

  • True Spirit is available to stream on Netflix now.