The premise of Maidentrip is haltingly simple. It is the story of Laura Dekker, a fourteen year old girl from The Netherlands who decides to sail around the world. She does it by herself, without support boats or any company whatsoever. She films herself while she’s out at sea, and director Jillian Schlesinger cobbles this into a documentary that’s somewhere between a coming of age tale and a travelogue. The imagery alone is worth watching — I’m pretty sure Laura captures some sequences most of us haven’t seen before — yet there’s also a sneaky message about the value of solitude.
Before Laura ships out, there’s a hasty sequence in which the Dutch legal system tries to intervene with her plans. It takes nearly a year, but Laura finally gets clearance for her voyage. The sequences by her are, no parsing words here, beautiful. As someone with relatively boring travel aspirations, it’s thrilling when Laura’s camera looks out and sees nothing but endless water. She is not a rush to complete her trip — she gave herself two years — and she says on camera that she wants to absorb the culture of places where she has her stops. Her first is the Canary Islands (700 miles from Holland, according to Schlesinger’s adorable animated world map), and these moments are when Schlesinger has an opportunity to film her subject from a distance. While the sections at sea are like a confessional, Laura is less self-aware when she’s on land.
Maidentrip broke down my critical eye to the point where I was moved to tears. It’s that simple. The first legs of Laura’s trip are her most difficult: she’s still acclimated to life on land, more or less, so she misses human company. There’s a scene in which she’s thankful for the company of dolphins as they swim alongside her boat, and although Laura is off-camera it’s plain to hear how her voice catches with emotion. It’s a moving scene precisely because it’s without artifice: she’s happy and sad in a simple way, and her emotion is utterly universal. Laura is a teenager, and she thinks the rules of adolescence don’t apply to her, but it’s fascinating to watch how she changes (physically and emotionally). While I don’t think I could embrace solitude like she does, I get where she’s coming from. She embraces humanity by eschewing society.
There are moments in Maidentrip when Schlesinger is truly insightful about her subject. The happiest sequences are about the culture of sailing. While she’s in the Caribbean, Laura befriends an American couple and they truly see each other as equals. Laura talks about how her trip alienates her from most people: when she decides not to return to Holland, it’s not the choice of an impetuous teenager but someone who realizes she’s happier without a country. This is not inspiring, exactly. Laura can be a shit and sometimes she lacks basic self-awareness, but the documentary works because she’s not indifferent to beauty or joy. There are things in Maidentrip I thought I’d never see in film — the keys in the Panama Canal are a good example — and the shots are so good that I couldn’t help but think that every teenager would benefit from time at sea. They’re too annoying for company, anyway.