Starring Shailene Woodley, Sam Claflin
There are lots of survival films, many of them taking place in open water. “Adrift” is both similar to those before it, and strikingly different. Based on an incredible true story of a sailboat wrecked in the Pacific, Shailene Woodley (“The Descendants”) re-dons her bathing suit to give what’s easily her most ambitious and demanding performance to date. Director Baltasar Kormákur (“Everest,” “2 Guns”) is known more for his bombastic action films that tend to be more overblown than subdued. Surprisingly he takes an unexpected gentle turn with this endeavor. “Adrift” is a riveting and excruciating story, but for much of the film, we are shown the beauty of the experience. The imagery is elegant and soothing as it is tense.
A 24-year-old nomad drifting from one tropical location to the next, Tami Oldham (Woodley) meets 33-year-old British sailor Richard Sharp (Sam Claflin) on his stop in Tahiti in 1983. He admittedly has never met anyone so vivacious and disconnected from the world and fall’s in love almost instantly. Their courtship blooms as they combine their love and passion for sailing. Richard is hired to sail a ship to San Diego and insists Tami come along, although to return to the place she ran away from wasn’t so appealing to her. On their journey, they run into a hurricane off the coast of Central America that damages the ship. Drifting away from flight paths and ship routes leaves them little hope of survival, “If we miss Hawaii, we die,” Tami says on their current dilemma.
It’s a performance that is as challenging physically as it is emotionally, and Woodley never falters.
Typically, I am turned off by flashbacks because most directors and or editors can’t make it work in a way that propels the story forward. However, the editing here rises above the gimmicky flashback and leads us right up to the tragic present-day predicament. “Adrift” is as much a romance as it is a survival film. The story is told from Tami’s point-of-view, as she struggles against circumstance in nearly every scene after the storm. It’s a performance that is as challenging physically as it is emotionally, and Woodley never falters. Whether attached to forgettable franchises or award-winning limited series, Woodley always lets a bit of her true personality infect the character. Claflin continues to improve with his last couple of films, mostly cast here as eye candy.
Nearly all of the film was shot on location in Fiji which provides the remote, alienating landscape of water and horizon. The cinematography shot by Richard Sharp (“Kill Bill,” “Hugo”) is as engrossing as the plot. There is a constant appreciation for the natural beauty of their surroundings even when the circumstances are dire. Sharp manages to stray away from the expected shot list you might find in similar films like “Cast Away” or “The Impossible.” Finally, it is composer Volker Bertelmann (“Lion”) delivering the year’s most passionate and affecting original score that ties all of “Adrift’s” most prolific elements together. It might not redefine the sub-genre or procure any path to greatness, but “Adrift” is a moving cinematic experience of extraordinary resilience and endurance.
Equal parts striking and devastating, “Adrift” carves out a unique spot among great survival films.