Part-time sailor and full time wandering bum Tami Oldham (Shailene Woodley) runs across rugged older man Richard Sharp (Sam Claflin) while moving through Tahiti. The pair hit it off, and after some happy years together find themselves alone on a boat crossing the Pacific from Tahiti to San Diego. Hurricane Raymond strikes, and what should’ve been a pleasant sail becomes a desperate attempt at survival.
While Adrift hits the beats in a workmanlike manner there isn’t enough separating this true story tale from a lost-at-sea genre as crowded as the ocean is empty. Some of the dialogue in the flashbacks to Tami and Richard’s relationship is leaden and overwrought, and there are moments of peril dampened by a saccharine gloss.
Differentiating Adrift from Robert Redford’s All Is Lost is that this is a tale of two, depending on an interplay between Tami and Richard to keep an audience afloat. It’s all interesting enough as tales of two people meeting and falling in love are, but often the intensity of feeling these two must have had for each other doesn’t come off. This is more fault on a script that conveys no greater antagonism between them than a couple of tiffs than on Woodley and Claflin, who give their all to the characters presented.
Woodley’s career was in danger of entering a death spiral after the fiasco that was the Divergent trilogy, and while this performance won’t put her on the A-list it does prove she can be leading lady material going forward. She is convincingly desperate once disaster strikes, and her performance doesn’t over-reach for audience waterworks. As a person she also embodies the free spirit that Tami was, to the point Woodley didn’t immediately respond to the casting call as she had been arrested protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline. Woodley also received a producer credit for Adrift, a testament to work behind the scenes.
This isn’t Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur’s first job filming in water, though it is only through one very impressive shot following Richard as he jumps off a cliff that his experience stands out. As much of the camera work is spent on water-borne shots as following Woodley’s body, who in both halcyon flashback and catastrophic present is usually in some state of undress.
One reason for a leaky script is a tone that hits the middle of the road. Scriptwriters the Kendall brothers have done their research, but the film is too pandering for a YA market to really drive home the brutality of the experience. Woodley is suffering for sure, but compared to the way the men of Das Boot or men and women of Everest did, it doesn’t drive home. The brothers were working on Moana at the same time, and there were points it felt as if both sea-faring films were aiming for a similar audience.
Both Woodley and Claflin (a veteran of The Hunger Games and Me Before You) might be seen as using Adrift as a stepping stone from weepies and YA to firmer footing. The film is passable, and they certainly haven’t fallen in.