Jillian Schlesinger’s “Maidentrip,” which debuted at SXSW and screened at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, chronicles Dutch teen
Laura Dekker’s sail around the globe at age 14, a feat which would win her the title in
2012 of youngest person in history to make the voyage alone. Observant and
unassuming, the documentary looks at the significance of Laura’s trip not in terms
of records, but as a rite of passage, and as a way for the teen to negotiate
The film gets the ugly stuff out of the way first. Following
Dekker’s announcement to sail in 2009, she and her father were embroiled in a
ten-month legal battle. Dutch authorities claimed that Laura needed a custody
transfer, while the internet tossed words at her including “arrogant,” “spoiled” and the particularly nasty sentiment: “I hope she sinks.” After a
year of warring with the courts and shouldering waves of media opinion, Laura
was permitted to make her voyage, and to remain under her father’s custody.
This period in time Schlesinger keeps to an economical five-minute montage.
Indeed, “Maidentrip” is pleasantly free from the hysteria
that surrounded Laura Dekker for over a year, and instead presents her trip in a
judgment-free manner. It neither suggests (as it understandably could) that 14
is an alarmingly young age to traverse the mightily unforgiving Pacific and
Atlantic Oceans, nor takes a blindly positive “Ra! Ra! Go Laura!” stance (as
would be tempting, given that Laura proves herself an admirable badass in many ways).
Instead, Laura is portrayed as an independent outsider, at
once open-hearted, enviably confident and a bit prickly, sick of what she sees
as daily life in Holland (which she rounds up succinctly: “Get money, get a
house, get a husband, get a baby, then die”). She pines for a truly outsized
adventure. While other young record-holding sailors completed the round-world
trip without lengthy stops at ports, Laura gives herself two years for the
excursion, so that she can soak in the land-bound culture of the different climes where she alights (among them French Polynesia, Australia, the Galapagos Islands and
A large portion of the footage we see was filmed exclusively
by Laura while onboard. To be eligible as a record-holder, she was allowed no
crewmates while captaining her trusty boat The Guppy, so Dekker acts as her own
camera operator and narrator, periodically filming herself throughout her trip,
commenting on the winds, weather and whatever else might be on her mind.
Laura’s camera proves therapeutic for the onset of
loneliness that strikes her early in the expedition; the device is something to
talk to. She comments on the silly and mundane, but also on the more profound
experiences of being thousands of miles from land or another human. We hear her
sniffling through tears as she films a pod of dolphins swimming alongside her
boat, pleading with them to stay awhile and assuage her feelings of isolation.
Yet as time and the documentary go on we sense a change in
Laura. She’s relishing the days on end of alone time, and seemingly more
attuned to the fluctuations of the ocean. A rather dicey passage around the
southernmost tip of South Africa offers up 60-foot waves and weather conditions
that a newspaper informs us “even the bravest skipper wouldn’t attempt.” Laura
checks in with us for a moment during this leg of the journey, glowing green in
her camera’s night vision, unphased by the torrents of rain and wind raging
Of course many of the most daring parts of Laura’s voyage —
those that would consume her undivided attention — aren’t caught on camera, and
we’re left to fill in the blanks. Director Schlesinger instead focuses on the
meditative aspects of the young woman’s sail, examining how a preternaturally assured
teen handles the day-in, day-out routines of taking care of herself and her
home, getting from point A to point B, drifting pleasantly in between, and greeting
and parting from new places and friends.
I would argue that Laura’s voyage is a coming-of-age, at
once grander and more outlandish than most, while set in a strangely contained microcosm
of time (two years) and space (her 40-foot boat). Yet Schlesinger also pointedly includes home
video and photo montages of Laura’s early life as an infant and toddler, when
she and her parents, who soon thereafter divorced, were sailing the globe as a
family. It’s telling that Laura retraces her parents’ route port for port, and
that she repeatedly refers to the sunny, tropical locations as”paradise.” As
she describes in voiceover her difficult childhood, much of which she spent
alone while her single father worked and her mother began a new, separate life,
we realize that Laura’s record-breaking sail not only represents her ascension
into adulthood, but also her way to reclaim a paradise lost.
Watch an exclusive clip from “Maidentrip“ here. The film opens at IFC Center on January 17.