by George Wolf
Opening with an extended take that efficiently moves us from confusion to desperation, director Baltasar Kormakur sets the gripping stakes of Adrift with scant dialog. His closing is equally effective, showcasing a touching humanity with nuance, and hardly a spoken word.
The journey in between is literally harrowing but cinematically uneven, a sometimes gritty testament to survival that is too often satisfied with the path more traveled.
Adapted from a memoir by Tami Oldham (Ashcraft), the film recounts her incredible ordeal surviving over month at sea in the aftermath of 1983’s Hurricane Raymond.
Oldham was traveling the world through odd jobs in exotic locales when she met fiancee Richard Sharp during a stay in Tahiti. Englishman Sharp, an experienced sailor, docked his own vessel and accepted a lucrative offer to sail a friend’s 44-foot yacht back to San Diego.
Oldham, a San Diego native with limited sailing knowledge, came aboard.
Shailene Woodley, also earning a producer credit on the film, stars as Oldham, instantly establishing an important and authentic chemistry with Sam Clafin as Sharp. The nautical metaphors (with Oldham drifting though life until Sharp becomes her anchor) may be hard to miss, but they go down easy through the talents of the lead actors.
A true life adventure such as this brings some inherent challenges to the big screen, and Kormakur meets them with understandably familiar narrative choices.
The time alone at sea is layered with flashbacks to how Tami and Richard’s bond was formed, both deepening our connection to them and breaking up the lonely stretches at sea through crowd-pleasing fun and romance.
As the situation grows more desperate, pleasing flirts with pandering, and Kormakur weakens the emotional impact with some unnecessary spoon-feeding.
When the couple sails into the teeth of the hurricane, it bites hard, giving Kormakur (Everest, 2 Guns, Contraband) the chance to flash his action flair via a breathtaking storm sequence.
The film’s tale is truly compelling, and it does deliver satisfying stretches while staying cautious of any narrative risks that might seem disrespectful.
Even at its most dangerous, Adrift feels ironically safe.