Adrift tells the true story of Tami Oldham (Shailene Woodley), who, while sailing a yacht to San Diego with her boyfriend Richard Sharp (Sam Claflin), gets caught in a storm that leaves the boat in tatters. With a search area too large for anyone to conceivably find the yacht, Tami uses her tact and pure force of will to navigate the boat toward Hawaii, a target small enough that any miscalculation could mean missing landfall and, thus, certain death.
The five minutes of screentime after Woodley’s Tami comes to and takes stock of her situation, where she kicks herself into gear and Jerry-rigs the half-destroyed boat into a functioning machine, is attention-grabbing. The pure determination in problem solving, playing out so rapidly, is mesmerizing.
Almost nothing after this point rises to this same thrilling level. The survival aspect of the film is the most compelling to watch play out, and Woodley’s performance aides this plot immensely. For a film about live or death stakes, however, it is surprising how often the events lack the tension and weight of such a situation.
Given that director Baltasar Kormakur’s previous English-language film Everest grasped on to that mortal tension so well, it is somewhat of a shame that Adrift doesn’t follow the same white-knuckle trajectory.
This is especially disappointing because it is clear to see glimpses of that thrilling movie in the one we are given. There are moments when Tami is at her breaking point, and she must overcome the adversity of her situation in spite of the emotional toll it is taking. These moments feel real, and we are able to get inside the mind of the character.
Other moments feel more contrived. Some of these moments take place on the storm-weathered boat; one that stands out is a bit about peanut butter.
Mostly, though, the contrivance comes from the plot structure itself. The entire film cross-cuts the action between two timelines: one entirely taking place after the storm and one taking place in the five months leading up to that fateful day. While this structure, in and of itself, is not a bad idea—it is used to good effect when it comes to the ending of the film—it doesn’t serve enough of a function to warrant its inclusion in the script.
The flashbacks are used solely to establish the relationship between Tami and Richard, and they play out like a fairy tale. Even if true to life, the love story as it is on screen depicts two people who have escaped negative things in their past by living freewheeling lifestyles that bring the couple together. Their relationship blossoms quickly and passionately, but in that too-good-to-be-true way that reeks of irony.
This relationship is meant to amp up the stakes, particularly when it comes to the climax. But it becomes apparent as we approach this final beat—which I am working hard not to spoil here, just because the structuring aims to provide this beat the biggest emotional charge—that the flashback structure was likely a reverse-engineered way of getting us to that beat. It becomes apparent that much of the relationship development truly was the filler that it felt like.
And, yes, it is in service of a moment that does resonate emotionally. I heard some sniffling in the theater. But the moment is milked for every ounce of emotion possible. It is a moment that would have benefited greatly from some restraint. Not much would have been changed to make that a reality; nothing more than trimming away a redundant montage.
This is all to say that Adrift is a fine little survival picture retelling the story of an undoubtedly resourceful and determined person. Woodley captures these traits well, enough so that the film is, through her essentially solo performance, compelling. But there is a greater picture in these compelling sequences, a picture that we lose when the film takes us out of the isolation and tension of the immediate situation.
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)