Featuring a beautifully nuanced performance by Shailene Woodley, well-staged direction by filmmaker Baltasar Kormakur, and just the right tone and atmosphere, Adrift proves to be a sturdy craft, navigating past stormy patches with graceful elegance.
Based on a true story, as the opening credits declare, Adrift begins in media res as a young woman surfaces in a large body of water, desperately crying out to someone she cannot see.
We soon learn that the young woman is named Tami Oldham (Woodley) and she is a free spirit in the 1980s, some five years before the tumultuous opening moments. At the age of 19, she has already been traveling the world for some time, with no particular destination in mind except away from her home town of San Diego, California.
Some time after docking in Tahiti and securing a job at the harbor, Tami meets Richard Sharp (Sam Claflin), a British national who arrives sailing his own boat. Tami takes the initiative to connect with him again, and an extended conversation one evening makes it clear to both of them that they are kindred souls. Love, inevitably, follows, as does the opportunity to sail a friend’s boat from Tahiti across the Pacific Ocean to … San Diego!
Icelandic director Baltasar Kormakur has long been fascinated by the sea in his cinematic endeavors, dating back to Hafið (aka The Sea) in 2002, a rich family drama set in a fishing village. That film, too, occasionally featured human bodies in troubled, stormy waters, which Kormakur shot in medium frame from the eyeline of the water, bobbing on the surface.
Since then, Kormakur has made films in both his native Iceland as well as in Hollywood (Contraband, 2 Guns), but has been drawn back to overwhelming natural elements, time and again, as in The Deep (a fisherman tries to survive in the freezing ocean) and Everest (an intrepid group of climbers attempt to survive a disaster freezing expedition).
Adrift finds the director playing around with the narrative, which is a great choice since so much of the film has to do with a desperate struggle to survive in open waters for an extended period of time. Whenever things become overwhelming, we shift back to the development of the relationship between Tami and Richard, with an eye toward very personal markers: rather than any romantic milestones, the film is more interested in how they came to a greater understanding of each other.
Shailene Woodley, who also produced, is completely open-hearted in her emotions and never appears to hold anything back, as far as her emotions, her physical being, and, yes, her spirit are concerned. She animates the film and makes it compelling to watch. Knowing that it’s based on a true story, we can’t imagine that she’s going to die, but deeper questions are explored: how did she survive without losing her mind entirely?
Obviously, the human mind, body and spirit are capable of far more than we might ever have imagined and Adrift splendidly makes the question of survival fare more than a simple physical accomplishment. The film buoys the viewer’s spirit, even while raising the issue of life itself: what does it mean to survive, truly?
(Demonstrating steely-eyed resilience in the face of large-scale blockbuster releases, much like its lead character, Adrift can still be experienced on a relatively big screen at various Dallas multiplexes, such as AMC’s Northpark 15, where I finally caught up with the film today.)