True Spirit movie review & film summary (2023)

Her story would seem like a can’t-miss subject for a crowd-pleasing film, and “True Spirit”—starring Teagan Croft of DC’s “Titans,” directed by Sarah Spillane and co-written by her and Cathy Randall—does not miss. The screenplay’s structure tends to impede dramatic momentum by regularly cutting back to key moments in Watson’s childhood just when the present-tense action is building up a fine head of steam. But the sailing sequences, a mix of location footage and green screen bits, are stirring, sometimes breathtaking, and occasionally storybook-poetic (as in a nighttime scene that begins with an overhead shot of Watson’s boat, Ella’s Pink Lady, seeming to float in a sea of stars, then tilts up to show that the stars are reflections in the water). 

In real life, as noted in Watson’s memoir, her dad vigorously opposed her taking the trip, but the film makes it seem as if he had only a moment’s hesitation; and Cliff Curtis’ “coach” character, Ben Watson, is a fictionalized version of Watson’s real mentor and project manager, Bruce Arms. He’s been given a tragic backstory here that seems mainly there to give the heroine something to cruelly use against him at a moment when they’re both stressed out. (Yes, they make up.) But there are always compressions, deletions, and inventions in dramas based on life, and the leanness of this film’s approach works mostly in its favor, even if there are times when one might wish they’d leaned into the “fable” aspect a bit harder (what an animated film this might have made!).

Overall, however, there’s something a tad anodyne and “off” about this production. It’s so perky and clean-scrubbed that it feels like a Disney Channel version of a wilderness survival tale, suitable for young children who presumably can’t handle too many complexities or contradictions, and whose parents (perhaps) believe that the highest function of popular culture is to show families as harmonious institutions, and outsiders as interfering know-nothings. 

And at the same time, strangely, the film is so single-mindedly focused on vindicating Watson and her family and coach, and making anyone who raised objections to the trip seem like killjoy ninnies and usurpers of free will, that there are moments when it seems like the movie equivalent of a sore winner. Media naysayers are incarnated by a composite character TV reporter, played by actor Todd Lasance—a showboater with a punchable smirk who has been given the name “Atherton,” presumably an homage to the narcissist portrayed by actor William Atherton in “Die Hard.” Of course Atherton, too, eventually comes around and cheers for Watson. Additionally, Watson’s blog as framed within the movie seems like more of an illustration of how to bypass the media and get one’s “message” out than an autobiographical treasure trove documenting Watson’s incredible journey. Meanwhile, the ingrained sexism that Watson faced from records-certifiers who came up with all sorts of reasons to deny her right to claim a world’s record afterward go largely unexamined. 

Watson’s memoir and the 2010 documentary about her achievement, “210 Days,” are altogether more thorough and nuanced looks at this story, though of course that’s nearly always true of documentaries that tell the same story as works of fiction. Dramatic features tend to have goal-directed stories with uncomplicated happy endings. The messiness of life gets sanded off in the name of giving the people what they supposedly want.

Now playing on Netflix.

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