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Laura Dekker, age 14, decides she will become the youngest female to ever complete a solo sailing voyage around the world.

As far as one-line documentary premises go, that’s about as compelling as it gets. Which doesn’t mean that director Jillian Schlesinger had an easy task at hand; on the contrary, the magnitude of Dekker’s story presented some serious challenges. First, there’s the problem of making something very short out of something very long. How do you condense a two-year voyage into an 80-minute film? That solved, you face the more pressing issue of making something very small into something very big—most of Laura’s journey was routine, even boring. How to dramatize the tedium?

The answer, if it could boiled down to a word, would be “humanity.” Dekker is a remarkable, charismatic girl, a fact that should be obvious by the sheer adventurous size of her undertaking. She spent the first four years of her life on a boat, and when her parents divorced (her father was a sailing fanatic, her mother hated it), she had to choose between them. She chose her father, but it was more like a choice for the ocean. In her early childhood, her father had a breakdown that led to bursts of spontaneous anger, and she got the impression from her mother when she visited that her presence was a burden. So Laura turned to sailing. She embarked on longer and longer voyages, eventually making a solo trip all the way to England at age 13, where authorities asked her father to come and sail her home.

When Dekker announced her plans to sail around the world, she met immediate opposition in the Dutch courts, and it took a ten-month court battle to win the freedom she and her father sought. Schlesinger presents this information in flashbacks, splicing in news footage, old family photos, and home videos to capture the early life of a girl whose life is still … well, early. Shots of Laura hiding behind a backpack as journalists shoot photographs of her hint at the psychological price she and her father paid simply for the right to set sail.

But they won, and in the summer of 2010, her father watched her sail away in a ketch called the Sea Guppy for a journey that would take her across 27,000 nautical miles of sea in 519 days. From Spain to Panama to Australia to South Africa (avoiding Somalia due to the threat of pirates) and back to the Caribbean, Laura documented her trip with daily video dispatches from the boat. And the adventure wasn’t without drama; there were storms near the Cape of Good Hope, treacherous reefs in the Torres Strait near Australia, and various other obstacles that resulted in torn sails, water on the deck, and all manner of near-catastrophes.

But the beauty of Schlesinger’s film—what distinguishes it from a simple diary of a grand adventure—comes in the small moments. When we hear Laura crying behind a camera as she videotapes a school of dolphins beside the boat, hoping they stay with her for the company; when we watch her dance to Kool & the Gang’s “Celebrate” as she reaches the equator one night after departing Panama; when we see her make shadow puppets on the wall of the boat’s cabin—these are the moments when the girl behind the journey is revealed. With the aid of Penelope Falk’s masterful editing, which can’t be praised enough, Schlesinger urges us to recognize that Dekker is not a symbol or a remote icon. She’s a young girl achieving something extraordinary, but a young girl nonetheless. The message is simple; up close, when you bypass the image and the deed, heroes begin as regular people.

And though this is a document of real life, Dekker is still one of the best characters I’ve seen in film this year. The Dutch press called her “insane” and “arrogant” when she began the voyage, and they didn’t totally miss the mark; there’s a vibrancy to her that’s totally out of the ordinary, and we witness her stubbornness as she deals with journalists and her father. But the skeptics in Holland missed the beauty of her character; she’s a lissome, brave girl, but one with immense soul.

One of Maidentrip’s most affecting moments came when she sailed by New Zealand and was faced with the choice of forging ahead to make sure she could secure her status as the youngest girl to sail across the world, or to stop, and visit the country where she was born. She chooses the former, but the missed connection pains her. She asks herself if any of it really matters, and finds comfort in the story of a poor French sailor who was about to win a big race, and then simply dropped out so he could keep sailing. Dekker understands the romance that’s in her own heart; she loves being alone, on the water, more than she loves the idea of fame or fortune. Even when she’s about to finish, she sees the swarms of media, family, and onlookers, and briefly considers abandoning the whole thing and moving on to the next island.

And she understands, too, that a life lived on the ocean is a life unmoored. She grows to detest Holland, and the people who care only about money and an ordinary life, and this passion leads her to finish the journey in the Caribbean so they can’t claim her. She even adopts a New Zealand flag halfway through the voyage. But for Dekker, any flag is temporary. “I don’t have a home,” she tells the camera at one point, with a mixture of acceptance and regret. Later, she admits that she needs the calm, the storms, and the loneliness of the sea. She is young, blunt, and proud, but more than that, she is earnest. She wants a life that is, in her own defiant words, “not always the same stupid thing.”

So it’s salutary for Dekker and the viewer both when we catch one last glimpse of her in the lovely closing shot. She’s sailing again on the placid ocean, now with a friend, bound—of course!—for New Zealand.

Director: Jillian Schlesinger
Screenplay: Laura Dekker, Jillian Schlesinger, Penelope Falk
Starring: Laura Dekker
Release Date: Jan. 17, 2014