Shailene Woodley provides solid anchor to ‘Adrift’

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“Adrift” is a pulse-pounding tale about, among other things, whether a vegetarian would rather starve to death than eat a can of fish. It’s the true story – as these things must be – of Tami Oldham (Shailene Woodley), a 24-year-old sailor who had to survive by her wits on a leaking yacht lost in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

When we meet her, Tami is the epitome of a California beach girl drifter – puka shells, sunbaked blonde hair, and a laudable sense that the capitalist system in America is to be avoided at all costs. She washes ashore on the not-as-glamorous-as-you’d-think marina in Tahiti and meets Richard Sharp (Sam Claflin).

Richard asks her over and points out the always-sexy premise that he built the boat upon which they’re now standing. The craft is called the Mayaluga, which means “one who crosses the horizon,” a reference to Richard’s solo sailing exploits. Once Tami asks dreamily, “What’s it like sailing out there alone?” the game is over. Soon they’re diving off cliffs together and doing lotus poses underwater.

Their plan is to cruise the world over on his ship, right after they collect the $10,000 they’ve just been offered to sail a different yacht from Tahiti to San Diego. This boat is called the Hazaña, meaning a feat or exploit – an altogether less romantic craft than the Mayaluga – and they unknowingly sail it directly into a hurricane.

To prevent the audience from feeling a sense of “been there, suffered that,” about another boat in a storm story, the film tacks back and forth in time. “Adrift” opens with Tami coming up for air in the cabin of the wrecked Hazaña and then cuts to her first meeting with Richard. The doubled narrative works – her happy memories are like reproaches, the best-laid plans are doomed from the start.

When she realizes the severity of the damage to the yacht after the storm passes, Tami finds the radio is broken. (Side note: is there no way to waterproof those things? After all the maritime films dealing with this issue you’d think shipbuilders would account for this.)

In desperation for Richard’s counsel, Tami searches the place for his lost face and finds him against the horizon, clinging to the Hazaña’s dinghy. He’s alive but his leg is grossly broken, his ribs crushed (in fairness, his beard still looks quite fetching). She is matter-of-fact on their chances: “We’re going to die out here.” The boat isn’t on flight paths or shipping lanes. They have a very high stakes argument about directions and she wins – they hang a left for the Hawaiian Islands. To miss them is sure death.

Woodley’s performance is totally committed, her voice cracking, her lips chapping, her mouth reluctantly snacking on sardines. The conditions resemble Blake Lively’s in “The Shallows,” except instead of a shark the beast threatening her is starvation.

Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur is in his wheelhouse – he likes to show people under terrible physical exertion, trapped in ice in “The Deep” or stuck on that famous mountain in “Everest.” He employs Robert Richardson, the august cinematographer of Scorsese and Tarantino, to toss you in big waves until you’re seasick.

Kormákur also makes the somewhat surprising choice to have the Tom Waits ditty “I Hope That I Don’t Fall in Love with You” sung three times in the film. And it’s bracingly resonant, even when plucked on a waterlogged guitar.

“Adrift” builds to dual climaxes, the two ways it seems the couple are going to die – first from the massive wave looming above them and then from exposure a month later. The terrifying vision of death at sea speaks to our ultimate bad dreams, the ones we prefer to experience in the cinema.

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