Warning: This review contains very mild spoilers for Adrift.
My advice to you: Don’t google Adrift before you see it.
The film, directed by Baltasar Komakur and produced by Shailene Woodley, who also stars, is loosely based on the true story of couple Tami Oldham and Richard Sharp, whose 1983 sailing journey across the Pacific Ocean was literally upended by the surprise onset of Hurricane Raymond. True stories lend credibility to a story that could otherwise be hard to believe, but with the downside that where there are facts there are spoilers. And this is a movie whose twist hinges on the viewer knowing nothing about the story.
Whether or not that’s a good thing depends on where you stand on the spoiler-averse spectrum. But overall, Adrift is a compelling addition to the cannon of survival movies, a genre that, until recently, has been overwhelmingly dominated by men. (Gravity, Wild, and The Shallows being notable exceptions.)
The plot centers around Tami Oldham (Woodley) a 23-year-old San Diego native whose main occupation appears to be not going back to her hometown. She’s been working odd jobs, traveling from place to place since she graduated high school, a journey that eventually leads her to the turquoise waters of Tahiti. There, she meets Richard Sharp (Sam Claflin), a dashing 34-year-old British sailor who shares her love of high seas freedom and adventure. The two fall in love, and are making plans to travel the world together when Richard gets offered a rare opportunity to sail a luxury yacht more than 4,000 miles from Tahiti to San Diego. (Yes, the very place Tami was trying to avoid. Karma’s a bitch.) But less than three weeks into what was supposed to be a romantic, if strenuous, voyage, the two get news that an increasingly strong hurricane is bearing down on their position. There’s nothing left to do but brace for impact: Tami goes below deck, as Richard straps himself in above.
When the worst is over, Tami is alone onboard — until she spots Richard floating in the distance. And so begins a grueling 41-day journey adrift on a sailboat with broken sails across more than 1,000 of open ocean.
It’s interesting that the trailer for the film frames this as a tropical love story thwarted by a monstrous wave, when so much of the action actually takes place in the aftermath of disaster, with Tami and Richard struggling for survival on a wrecked yacht, while food and water supplies are running low. Those are the scenes that elevate what would have been a cheesy meet cute gone wrong into a harrowing tale of endurance. Woodley and Claflin definitely have chemistry, but it’s often lost in terribly cheesy dialogue. (“I sailed half the world to find you.”)
The film’s strength lies in Woodley’s sheer physicality. She’s no Blake Lively, who, despite being one chomp away from shark bait in The Shallows, looks like a bronzed goddess the entire time. I believe Woodley could repair a damaged vessel and rescue her lover, incapacitated with broken ribs and a shattered leg, all while battling a concussion. The actress clearly went all in for the role, changing her appearance drastically, and it pays off. As Richard, Claflin embraces his goofiest Brit-self, bringing a portrayal that is both affable and charming, but allows Woodley to shine.
The film was almost entirely shot in the open water off of Fiji, and Komakur doesn’t squander the opportunity. The ocean is as much as a main character as Richard or Tami, glowing clear and inviting in the heady days of courtship, turning a cold, harsh black when the storm looms, and glittering hard as sharp nails when the sun is at its zenith and there’s no shade or sunscreen in sight.
There will surely be criticism of the aforementioned twist (again, don’t Google!), which does — on a surface level, at least — undermine the message that the film is trying to convey. But ultimately, this is a movie that delivers on its promise: to provide a thrilling, emotional, and unfiltered look at a hardcore woman battling the elements, while perhaps deterring some viewers from ever setting foot on any kind of boat ever again.