Laura Dekker is like most teenagers. She’s gaining more responsibility and control over her life as she demands more independence, and yet she’s also floating about as she explores her identity. The difference is that Dekker is doing all this on a boat as she sails around the world. By herself. She literally holds the reigns, or steering wheel, as she heads out into the uncertain waters of her own existence. As with any classic tale involving the sea, the metaphors could go on and on.
But the usual themes of coming of age do fit so well with Dekker’s unique story and setting, and in the documentary Maidentrip, director Jillian Schlesinger thankfully allows these connections to play for themselves rather than pointing them out. All that the film literally offers is a kind of selfie cinema about a girl and her ketch. Dive deeper, though, and it’s another terrific portrait of the woes and wonders of youth on the verge of whatever comes next.
Dekker embarked on her journey back in 2010, documenting almost everything herself along the way from Gibraltar to Saint Martin then west through the Panama Canal and French Polynesia, past Australia and South Africa, and finally returning to the Caribbean after 17 months at sea, upon which she was officially designated the youngest person ever to take such a global trek solo. She was 16.
Rather than sail non-stop, Dekker wanted to visit different ports and actually see the world, and Schlesinger would meet her at various times of landfall, filming hikes and bike rides and scuba tours and visits with new friends gained during the trip or with family members flying out to whatever location she’d included in her plans. In one memorable scene, she has a minor squabble with a customs agent illustrating how far from total freedom an adventure like this is.
Those interludes help Maidentrip avoid being just a monotonous ride-along filled with self-shot close-ups of a magnetic young individual and the occasional view of the ocean when it’s especially beautiful or choppy, even though those onshore bits are often the parts that feel most like insignificant home movies. We learn very little about Dekker’s personal journey when she’s on land and not alone, except for in sequences where she’s interacting with her mother and father.
Other more welcome interruptions involve cuts to Dekker’s back story, shown via old photos and clips while she tells us in voiceover about her being born on a boat, her parents’ divorce, her sailing history and, just before this voyage, a custody situation with her local government in Holland, where she was temporarily prohibited from attempting the sailing record on account of her age. The ordeal would greatly effect her feelings later of being adrift without a homeland.
What we surprisingly don’t see much of is actual sailing. As in Dekker at the wheel or hoisting sails or whatever else goes into the driving and navigation of the vessel. This makes sense given that someone can’t hold a camera and do that kind of work at the same time. And it’s only really missed during two crucial storm scenes. We can only imagine just how dangerous and harrowing they were based on what we’re told after and what kind of damage we see the boat in.
But Maidentrip isn’t about the sport of sailing. Any doc can be made about someone rounding the globe on their own, and in fact there’s even one about another teen girl who tried it before (Wild Eyes). That’s not the story here. At one point Dekker claims not to care at all about the record, though that seems to be a change of mind from the start. And changes of mind — others being which flag to fly under, where to finish up her trip, going from not being able to wait to get on land and “kick around” to making fewer port stops — are key to her character at this time in her life, because this is a film about a person finding herself.
Maybe having the sailing fall to side in importance is why Dekker isn’t a fan of the doc in which she stars. Or maybe that’s just another part of her current attitude, something that was to be expected given her professed and depicted clash with any sort of media coverage of her life and voyage. Knowing her response before watching, though, you might be surprised. She’s clearly interested in participating, filming her brief updates and intimately sharing herself on camera and in the narration, mostly looking happy to be on camera.
Yet she’s also an outsider, and the way the doc ends, the things she says about what’s next for her, the person she’s become and continues to move towards, it’s understandable for her character that she’s “not fully standing behind” a feature depicting her mid teens so personally. I’ve read that Schlesinger worked with Dekker to try to appease her during post-production, and I’m glad that in the end she obviously didn’t give in too much. Dekker ought to come around on the film eventually. It really is a treasure.
I need to comment on the title, as I’m always a fan of words used for multiple meanings. As clever as it seems, the association with “maiden voyage” doesn’t quite make sense since this isn’t necessarily about the boat’s first time at sea. That makes the point that this is about a trip of a maiden, as in the journey of a young girl and of being a young girl all the more definite.
Maidentrip is, along with recent films Only the Young, 12 O’Clock Boys and Medora, part of a new breed of nonfiction teen movies that acutely tap into the true heart and soul of that age better than any fiction filmmakers are doing right now. Specifically here, that time is an exploration, paralleled with a physical analogy of both triumph and inconclusiveness in the spirit of not only growing up but also growing outward.
This review was originally published on January 9, 2014.