Based on the true-life story of Tami Oldham (played here by Shailene Woodley), Adrift re-creates what happened to her and her boyfriend Richard Sharp (Sam Claflin) after the high-end sailboat they are traveling in across the Pacific is struck by a massive storm that renders the boat severely damaged and their chances of survival highly in doubt.
Icelandic-born director Baltasar Kormákur (Everest) structures Adrift between two parallel timelines—one begins when Tami wakes up in the aftermath of the storm, assessing the damage and beginning the painstaking process of salvaging what’s left of food, water, and other supplies; the other goes back five months prior, to her meeting Richard and the beginnings of their love affair in the tropical paradise of Tahiti.
Kormákur moves back and forth between these threads and the result is an interesting emotional device where we become more and more invested in their relationship in the earlier-set scenes while we mentally brace ourselves in the later-set sequences for the very real possibility that a severely injured Richard may not make it through this ordeal alive. I found this form of pulling the audience closer while we’re inclined to pull away (so as not to cry by the end) really bold, even if it doesn’t quite pay off in the end.
Woodley and Claflin are both very good, especially her portrayal of Tami fighting off starvation, thirst and the visual delusions that go along with being at sea for weeks on end. It was clearly a physically demanding experience for both Oldham in real life and Woodley in the film, and seeing Tami battered and bruised while also attempting to be a serene caregiver is quite an experience. Even without the underlying message concerning the human spirit and the will power that results from love, Adrift’s survival story borders on the miraculous.
As a technical achievement, what director Kormákur and his team pull off (using a seamless combination of practical and digital effects) is impressive—between the horrific storm sequence and an opening tracking shot that begins in the bowels of the vessel and ends above deck as Tami takes stock in her shattered, sinking boat. Despite having been involved in some exceptional projects (including The Descendants, The Spectacular Now, and “Big Little Lies” on HBO), Woodley is still a fairly under-appreciated actor, so it’s particularly satisfying to see her headline something this gritty and substantial in terms of an acting challenge. If anything about Adrift works for you, it’s likely because she makes all of what transpires seem believable, from the way she moves around the boat like a pro to her overall survival skills and powers as a comforting force to those around her.
Portions of Adrift allow for charm, humor and romance, but it’s the moments of struggle that bring it all together and push the film into a final act that is strange, surreal, and almost unbelievable (meant in a mostly positive way). Again, it’s Woodley who will either make it work for you or not, and she tends to make me believe what I’m seeing on most occasions.
If you’re feeling adventurous and looking for another kind of superhero in a crowded field, this might be for you.