Disoriented and frantic, Tami Oldham awakens with her boat taking on water and land nowhere in sight. “Adrift,” based on Oldham’s autobiography, tells the true story of a young couple hired to sail a boat from the South Pacific to San Diego after friends are forced to return home in a hurry because of a family illness. During the journey back stateside, they encounter Hurricane Raymond. As a result of the damage caused by the category four storm their boat ended up adrift in the Pacific Ocean for over 40 days.
The effective framing device employed by the film shows the events unfolding along two timelines, depicting the struggle to survive in the aftermath of the hurricane and flashbacks showing how the couple initially met and their relationship blossomed. Toggling back and forth between the two time periods helps balance the film out so that the first half isn’t a romantic comedy while the second switches to a disaster flick, causing whiplash for the audience.
In doing so, it also provides the actors the ability to almost take on two characters in one role. Due to the circumstances that they are faced with, both Tami and Richard are changed after the storm. Sam Claflin, who previously played a paraplegic in “Me Before You,” spends a good portion of the film here unable to move due to injuries Richard sustained during the storm while Tami is forced to handle maneuvering the sea and charting the course to find land.
Shailene Woodley is announcing that she’s ready to graduate to the big leagues here. She’s had well received supporting roles in “The Descendants” and the hit HBO drama, “Big Little Lies.” She also tried her hand at a poor man’s version of “The Hunger Games” with the “Divergent” films. But when we weren’t looking, Woodley matured and grew into a bona fide leading lady. The actress, who also serves as a producer on the film, is in nearly every frame of the picture and proves to be more than capable of carrying the burden.
Marking a return to the ocean for director Baltasar Kormakur, “Adrift” is only the latest in a string of sea based films for the Iceland native. He knows how to shoot on the open water, so that even while circumstances might be dire for the characters, the scenery around them is still awe-inspiring. Kormakur balances the claustrophobic elements of being trapped on the boat with lush scenery of the island locales portrayed in the flashbacks.
As much as it’s a survival based story, “Adrift” is a film designed for a specific audience of sailing aficionados. While the romantic story behind it will widen its audience, it helps to have at least a working knowledge of sailing. At times, the film feels a little too caught up in the terminology and depicting nautical information that that the lay person might not be as familiar. The film’s trio of writers – two of which were also involved in Disney’s “Moana – don’t seem as interested in explaining to the audience how many of these work, assuming that you will already know or that it’s not prudent to take time to explain. Both Tami and Richard are experienced on the high seas, so it makes it harder to organically integrate the information for the audience.
It’s a harrowing story of endurance and the sheer will to survive. Woodley turns in an impressive performance, balancing the young, free spirit introduced during the flashbacks with the weathered, and badly beaten up version that the character is forced to become later in the film. “Adrift” keeps swimming along with a relatively trim running time of just over 90 minutes. But without an avid interest in sailing, the film might end up drowning in the sea of options that are available to filmgoers during this summer season.