Adrift begins, like a lot of movies these days, in the middle: a young woman who we later find out is named Tami Oldham (Shailene Woodley) wakes up with her head bleeding and the boat on which she has been sailing smashed half to pieces. Her boyfriend, who we also later learn is named Richard Sharp (Sam Clafin), is missing. Tami and the wrecked boat are floating in the middle of the South Pacific with seemingly no chance of contact or rescue. Her situation seems grim indeed.
This, of course, has been the premise of many movies dealing with survival against the odds, most recently the Robert Redford-starring All is Lost. But while J.C. Chandor’s nearly wordless drama about one man’s quest to survive became a spare, almost unbearably tense metaphor for the inevitability of death, Adrift goes for a more Y/A-friendly approach to its story as it rolls back and forth in time to show us the beginnings of the love affair that brought Tami and Richard — who eventually resurfaces but is gravely injured — on board the boat and into the maw of a vicious hurricane in the first place.
Not much happens on the boat once Tami gets it in decent enough shape to begin drifting slowly in the direction of Hawaii. Perhaps that’s why director Baltasar Kormakur (Everest) and screenwriters Aaron and Jordan Kandell — who based their script on a memoir by the real-life Tami — thought it might be wise to cut away to the events leading up to Tami and Richard’s fateful trip (Richard was paid to sail the boat back to San Diego by a couple on Tahiti, with his new fiancée Tami along for the ride). The result is a film that continually strives to build tension and suspense yet undermines itself at the same time.
Adrift benefits from a solid central performance by Woodley, who throws herself physically and emotionally into every turn of Tami’s story, while Clafin is okay as a sort of bland Henry Cavill stand-in. Yet the movie never resolves its indecision over whether it wants to be a romance or a survival drama. The romance is clearly the weaker half: it’s developed more in a series of montages (Here are Tami and Richard going swimming! Here’s Richard Tami watching the sunset!) than in an organic manner, while the dialogue never quite rises above the level of clunkers like “I want to sail around the world with you.”
The aftermath of the storm is at least somewhat more gripping, and the sequence in which Tami and Richard are finally beset by the hurricane captures the frightening feelings of helplessness and despair that only the full, horrific force of nature unchecked can summon up (even with an occasionally wonky CG shot or two). But then the movie reveals something we didn’t know before — which we can’t go into here — which renders a lot of what we’ve seen before implausible at best and dishonest at worst, even with some helpful foreshadowing.
The real story is no doubt a harrowing one — that boat drifted for 41 days before finally being spotted — but Adrift contrives too much in its effort to tell two stories at once. And even though the title refers as much to the way Tami was living before she met Richard as to their perilous post-hurricane quandary, the bond between the two never feels developed enough in the other half of the film to make the outcome of their predicament as moving as it wants to be.
Adrift is intermittently interesting and has its moments of power, and it’s carried to a large degree by Woodley, who often finds the right balance of grit, vulnerability and refreshing competence. But it’s never clear which story the cast, filmmakers and writers really want to tell, and so the movie ends up embodying its title in more ways than were probably intended.
Adrift is out in theaters today (Friday, June 1).