Imagine if “All is Lost” as a documentary starring Jennifer Lawrence, and you wouldn’t be too far removed from the instantly and enduringly compelling “Maidentrip”, in which a Dutch teenager chronicles her attempt to become the youngest person to ever sail around the world solo. Perhaps the most crucial difference between the two films, however, is that unlike “Our Man”, Laura Dekker is actually a competent sailor. In fact, she might be the Beethoven of the sailing world, a girl so preternaturally talented that the only force on Earth capable of interfering with her seafaring dreams was the Dutch government.
Born on a boat off the coast of New Zealand and crewing her own vessel merely five years later, Laura Dekker has never been hurting for direction in her life, only the freedom to follow it. When the media got wind of Laura’s plan to sail around the world by herself at the age of 13, they convened a special council in an attempt to obtain custody of the girl and ground her on Dutch soil. The local papers called her “impulsive”, “delusional” and “spoiled” and it wasn’t long before her story caught the attention of people around the world, including that of a budding New York filmmaker named Jillian Schlesinger who saw something of herself in a teenage girl 3,000 miles away. Schlesinger (as she related to film.com in this interview), traveled to Europe, appealed to Dekker, and won the teenager’s trust. When Laura set off to circumnavigate the planet a few weeks later, she brought some of Schlesinger’s cameras along with her, the sailor agreeing to record regular video updates of her voyage in the hopes that the footage might later be cut into a feature film.
The resulting documentary arrives in theaters almost four years after Dekker raised anchor from a port in Gibraltar, the world as we know it at her back, and the movie – much like its heroine – absolutely embarrasses our expectations for it. Hardly the banal and self-satisfied portrait that we’ve been conditioned to expect from such obvious narratives of empowerment, “Maidentrip” is such a vitally different experience because the film resonates with its subject’s utter refusal to conform to what’s expected of it.
Dekker is steering this ship in more ways than one, and Schlesinger’s storytelling never forgets that. While the trajectory of the young girl’s adventure adheres to an expected arc – she’s happy, she’s reflective, she bonds with a simpatico older couple she meets at port – Schlesinger never underplays Dekker’s incredible skill as a sailor, and how plausible it renders her trip. At some point in the process, Schlesinger clearly realized that it would be futile and wasteful to embellish Dekker’s peril, and though the absolutely gorgeous interstitials created by The Moth Collective might take a moment to inform us that Dekker is going through a particularly dangerous patch of ocean, Schlesinger never insults the girl’s talents by belaboring the point.
But if “Maidentrip” respects Dekker, it’s careful not to revere her. The girl is a movie star, that much is certain. She’s a candid and fiercely charismatic screen presence, her presence made all the more magnetic because she never seems to be performing it (Dekker was an active voice in the editing room, but that may be the first time she gave any thought to her public persona). Crucially, however, Dekker is also a teenager. Like many teenagers, she felt the impulse to hide in her room and lock the door, it just so happened that her room was often floating hundreds of miles from land. “I love being alone”, Laura wearily confesses at one point, concluding that “freedom is when you’re not attached to anything”.
Here’s a pubescent girl who could easily be confused with Robert De Niro in “Heat”, whose ethos as a criminal is to never get attached to anything you can’t abandon in 30 seconds or less. But where Michael Mann forces De Niro to pay the ultimate price for his lone wolf mentality, “Maidentrip” isn’t nearly as punitive. Schlesinger is clearly impressed with Dekker (it’s impossible not to be), but she looks at her through a sympathetic and curious lens – instead of castigating or loudly cheering this girl for defying the limited roles that society has made available to her, “Maidentrip” sensitively inquires. Instead of focusing on why Dekker would isolate herself from civilization, Schlesinger asks why someone so capable of seizing the world for herself should be prevented from doing so. Dekker’s very specific journey, when buoyed by this pointedly ambiguous interpretation, isn’t an outright endorsement for kids to go sail off into the ocean so much as it’s an extraordinary reminder that the oceans are there for the taking.
This isn’t a Herzogian spirit quest that eschews the obvious questions in favor of more elemental interests – Dekker’s divorced parents make frequent cameos, both in home video footage and in the present, and the complex relationship they share with their daughter and each other hints at deeper reasons for Dekker’s trip while also leaving a crucial residue of the mundane lest we forget that Dekker isn’t superhuman. She plays by the same rules that we do, she just sees the game in a completely different way. In fact, the film’s only glaring misstep is that we don’t get to spend more time with her. Schlesinger’s editing is so concise and effective that 80 minutes is all the movie needs, but it’s certainly not all the time that audiences would be willing to afford it. Dekker’s trip doubtlessly included plenty of down time, and while “Maidentrip” may not have benefited from a clinical, Bressonian degree of detail, the film prioritizes speed in a way that Dekker herself never did.
Not that the brevity denies us pleasures that glide beneath the surface. Indeed, perhaps the most interesting wrinkle of all is how the film serves as an unconscious, multi-dimensional chronicle of two budding filmmakers. There’s Jillian Schlesinger, the invisible hand at work who transformed a story about going around the world into a movie about seeing it better, and then there’s also Laura Dekker, who evolves – before our eyes – from a kid taking video selfies into a liberated visual stylist. The camera doesn't only capture images of Dekker’s self-discovery, it also defines them, a second compass ensuring that Dekker can lose sight of land without losing sight of herself. Like a YouTube channel without the affect that invariably results from playing to an audience, Dekker’s gradual violations of traditional documentary self-portraiture ultimately become the most lucid illustration of a girl embracing the validity of her own experience.
SCORE: 8.7 / 10