There’s nothing particularly new about a “man versus sea” tale, but having a female protagonist enables the new film “Adrift” to immediately stand out. A number of other qualities give the movie adventure distinction as well. For starters, it’s a true story, based on Tami Oldham’s incredible 2002 biography Red Sky in Mourning: A True Story of Love, Loss, and Survival at Sea. Also, most of the principal photography was done on the ocean, not in a soundstage tank, and it gives everything an air of utter authenticity. Finally, Tami is played here by Shailene Woodley, one of the most likable and naturalistic actresses working today. The 26-year-old gives an intrepid performance in a physically demanding role that places her onscreen the entire 1 hour and 36-minute runtime.
A very similar story was told in 2013’s “All is Lost” with Robert Redford as a senior fighting to stay alive out on the water after his boat was devastated by an accident. To make Tami’s narrative stand out from such predecessors, screenwriters Aaron Kandell, Jordan Kandell, and David Branson Smith wove flashbacks of her happier times with boyfriend Richard (Sam Claflin) throughout the story of their trials at sea after their yacht is pummeled by a nasty storm. These flashbacks don’t disrupt the tension in the survival tale, but rather, give context to it. One showcases Richard helping Tami learn the ropes aboard his boat while on a date, followed by a life and death scene at sea where she had to incorporate that knowledge to keep afloat.
Due to Richard’s injuries after the storm, Tami was the only one physically able to commandeer the boat. She has to perform trying tasks such as diving under the boat while holding her breath to loosen a sail committing drag. Tami also had to take care of minor jobs too, such as playing guitar to keep spirits up. It’s a role that finds Woodley in constant motion, running up and down the deck, swimming, salvaging, you name it. She appears to be doing most of the stunt work as well, rendered all the more impressive by the fact that she’s doing it in barefoot and wearing few clothes.
Woodley’s Tami is plucky and fierce, doing her best to keep things afloat, even though she was only 23 at the time and far from being a veteran sailor. We see the worry and desperation in her eyes and root for her each of the painful 30 plus days adrift. The slyest parts of the script are those moments resembling a psychological thriller where Tami must do whatever she can to refrain from losing her mind. She sings to her love, does yoga onboard, and even learns to eat sardines and hunt fish though she was a devout vegetarian.
Claflin crucially makes the audience care for him too, creating a boyfriend who is patient, loving and present in his way, even when Tami has to take care of everything due to Richard’s incapacitation. The two have a warm, easygoing chemistry together, playing off each other like two peas in a pod, and it’s hard to imagine the blunter Miles Teller in the role as originally planned.
Director Baltasar Kormakur has done wonders with “Man vs. Nature” themes before, as in 2015’s “Everest”, and he brings nothing if not authenticity to his approach. He insisted that the film shoot on the ocean whenever possible and almost all of the scenes at sea were shot off the coasts of Fiji and New Zealand. Three-time Oscar-winning cinematographer Robert Richardson moves his camera up and down the deck, above and below the water, and into every nook and cranny of the boat. It’s a virtuoso achievement, one that should be remembered when Academy Award nominations are handed out next year.
When the storm finally is shown in full force during the last 15 minutes, it’s an incredibly realistic CGI creation, but Kormakur doesn’t belabor the gale force. Instead, he keeps his taut drama focused on what happens to his two characters as they are tossed about in its wake. And even though Tami is badly wounded, she will rise to the occasion, becoming a sailor and savior. Against all the wind, waves, heat, and cold, it was she who proved to be the truest force of nature.
Catch the trailer for Adrift below: