It would have been fair to write off Baltasar Kormákur’s Adrift simply based on the advertising and the talent attached, as most of my friends have, but you would have been wrong to do so.
Kormákur has tackled the survival drama previously (and decently) with his 2015 film Everest, and he brings an even hand to the true story of two lovers lost at sea in 1983. Tasked by an older couple to sail their boat to San Diego back from Tahiti — a journey of nearly 3,000 miles — Tami Oldham (a wonderful Shailene Woodley) and Richard Sharp (Sam Claflin) initially seem to have things under control, even if the journey looks long and difficult. But the young couple runs into the edge of a storm, which soon develops into a hurricane, and before you know it, their ship is trashed and Richard is seriously injured. Running out of food and drinking water, Tami, the only capable sailor left, makes a risky decision to sail the small boat to Hawaii to take advantage of winds and current, but any miscalculation could prove deadly for her or Richard, and it very well may.
Woodley and Claflin have a lovely chemistry together, and they’re delightful to watch in the flashbacks to the past, in which they’re just able to get to know each other and have a little fun before all the tragedy starts to happen. It’s easy to forget just how good of an actor Woodley really is, given the headfirst dive she made into the YA action and romance spheres after her fantastic work alongside Miles Teller in The Spectacular Now. She’s tops here, bringing the same sort of charming aloofness to her character’s outlook on life — a devil-may-care wanderlust that conceals real trauma in her past — and is made manifest in her relationship with Claflin, who is a kindred spirit going through much of the same (though he’s given less to do, given that he spends the “present” portion of the film lied up on the deck).
Each of them is given the time and care to create real characters, and that pays off dividends when bad things start to happen (Tami is, at one point, forced to break her vegetarian diet and attempt to spear some fish for their survival, which is set up well throughout the earlier flashbacks). You give a shit about these people desperately, and when the chips start to fall, you pray for their safety. And how could you not when the master Robert Richardson (the go-to cinematographer for filmmakers like Scorsese, Tarantino and Stone) is filming them in close-up?
It’s a tremendous bummer that the film caves in to cliche in the last third of the film, where the bullshit twist that’s revealed at the climax of the film wipes out nearly all goodwill previously established. A cursory Google search could have revealed the truth beforehand, but I imagine a lot of people are going to be like me in this circumstance: Walking in totally unaware of the story behind it, and I imagine a lot of others are going to feel similarly betrayed. This just undermines so much of the truth present in the early moments, and there’s a montage, occurring right after said twist, that just feels like salt being rubbed into an open wound. It’s a devastating narrative blunder, one on par with Jason Reitman’s Tully and David Wain’s A Stupid and Futile Gesture (which has a plot maneuver slightly reminiscent of this one, though Adrift manages to be significantly more ethical at its manipulation). There are justifications for this that one could elaborate on, but I just felt it was dishonest, no matter if it was the foundation of the film’s structure.
Anyways, Adrift mostly succeeds in spite of itself (that includes thematically, even though it never wholly pays off), and it does an excellent job at stepping aside and letting its excellent young cast work their magic, so that we can fall in love along with them. It deftly manages the trade-off between the typical glum existentialism present in so many of these particular films (there is a reason why a number are about older men kicking against the pricks of time) and substitutes romance — and loss — for it.
This is much better than most people who have seen any of the advertising are going to give it credit for, and if you even have a passing interest at one of our most unheralded young actors carrying a film all on her lonesome, I highly recommend you check this out. It also has perhaps the most enticing and disgusting portrayal of peanut butter ever put to film, so there’s another reason to go.