A film review by Craig J. Koban June 12, 2018

ADRIFT jjj

2018, PG-13, 96 mins.

 

Shailene Woodley as Tami Oldham  /  Sam Claflin as Richard Sharp  /  Luna Campbell as Tahitian Paddler  /  Jeffrey Thomas as Peter  /  Elizabeth Hawthorne as Christine  /  Grace Palmer as Deb

Directed by Baltasar Kormákur  /  Written by Aaron Kandell, Jordan Kandell, and David Branson Smith

 

 

 

 

 

ADRIFT is a new fact based outdoor survival thriller that's cross morphed with a romance drama, which immediately doesn't sound particularly enticing on paper.  

Yet, it tells the harrowing true story of Tami Oldman, whom in September of 1983 sailed into a rather powerful hurricane in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and came out of it alive with a severely damaged boat, very little water and rations and no radio support.   With 1500 miles separating her from Hawaii, Tami jerry-rigged a sail and then proceeded to manually navigate herself back to land.  It took her over a month, during which time she survived on peanut butter and sheer will power.  Her tale is definitely worth exploring on the silver screen, and one thing that makes ADRIFT more uniquely gripping is that this is a man versus nature tale of survival told ostensibly from the female perspective, which makes the resulting film have more refreshing urgency in a very crowded genre pack. 

All while watching ADRIFT I was reminded a lot of 2013's brilliant Robert Redford one-man show ALL IS LOST, and on many cursory and visceral levels the comparisons are worthy and apt.  However, what separates ALL IS LOST in its favor was that Redford was the only person in the virtually dialogue-free movie.  There was a startling sense of the vast expanse of the ocean and how being alone and without any aid in the slightest coming your way is a nightmarishly frightening prospect.  This is not to belittle Tami Oldman's ordeal in the slightest, but ADRIFT doesn't place as much faith in its survival narrative to simply just focus on her tortuous month-plus on the ocean.  Instead, it flashes back and forth throughout - sometimes fluidly, but most of the time awkwardly and without reason - to highlight her courtship with a man she was poised to marry that was lost during the sail through the hurricane in question.  There are two dramatic hemispheres at play here - the love story and the survival story - and only one of them is particularly gripping. 

 

 

There are many instances in ADRIFT where its Young Adult toned scenes between its two lovers - showcasing who they are, where they came from, and how they came to be together - almost seems superfluous to the larger and more important story of Tami's brush with death at sea.  The film might have worked better if it just placed more trust in the audience and simply thrust them into her plight without ever looking back.  To be fair, ADRIFT gets this half right with an opening scene that does indeed hurtle us right into the dire circumstances of Tami's predicament as we see her physically and mentally rattled in the aftermath of the devastating hurricane, during which time intense panic settles in with the realization that she may in fact be all alone in the middle of the ocean with a damaged boat and thousands of mile away from civilization.  On a positive, ADRIFT's introductory moment packs a strong emotional wallop.   

But then ADRIFT goes back in time earlier in 1983 as we see Tami (played in a headstrong and potently authentic performance by Shailene Woodley) wandering through Tahiti in search of a new life away from the one she escaped from in San Diego.  She takes some menial jobs working on maintaining and cleaning boats, and it's at this time when she has a meet-cute with Richard (Sam Claflin), a hunky and experienced sailor that seems to live a dream lifestyle of travelling the seas on his own boat.  Needless to say, this immediately attracts Tami to him, and within no time the pair are intimately hitting it off and become inseparable.  When Richard is given the job of a lifetime to sail a client's luxury yacht back home stateside for a small fortune, both he and Tami mutually agree to seize the opportunity to be afforded the financial freedom to fund their own expeditions for the indefinite future. 

Tragically for both, Richard and Tami find themselves caught in the aforementioned hurricane, and, as history would show (SPOILER ALERT!), only one of them would come out of it alive. 

This takes me to a very tricky sticking point that I had with ADRIFT that deals with Tami's mental state while trying to survive, which is suggested to be fraught with a potential for hallucinations on top of mental fatigue and crippling hunger and thirst.  This builds to a potentially shocking plot twist near the final stretch of the film that's not especially twisty, nor shocking if one considers the cursory elements of Tami's real life story on that boat.  If anything, it comes off as pretty dramatically manipulative.  Creatively, I think I understand the choices here, mostly because if you're going to have a romance drama that also just happens to be a reality based survival story then you want your lead actors front and center, but ADRIFT seems to lack conviction in terms of allowing its story to ostensibly be a one woman show for Woodley, which is something that I think holds it back from achieving true greatness. 

The yo-yo nature of the scripting here doesn't do the film any favors either, seeing as we essentially have two seemingly separate stories vying for attention here, which leads to the whole enterprise feeling narratively choppy throughout.  Just when things feel like they're building to suspenseful crescendos we're granted flashback upon flashback that shows the happier times on land that Tami and Richard had before their life altering hardships at sea.  It's not that these scenes aren't fine on their own, and Woodley and Claflin do have a decent amount of unforced chemistry throughout.  But when all is said and done, ADRIFT is a far more enthralling watch when it hones in on Tami using her amateur nautical skills, a lot of intestinal fortitude, and quick witted decision making - not to mention some serious luck - to see that she makes it out of this hellish mess in one piece.  On those levels, the scenes involving her 41 highly pressurized days at sea are endlessly captivating and make ADRIFT worth the price of admission.  Everything else around that seems to be one perfunctory melodrama. 

There are two other things that make ADRIFT worthy of your viewing investment.  Firstly, the direction by Baltasar Kormakur (no stranger to outdoor survival flicks, having previously made the very decent EVEREST) is technical proficient and frequently breathtaking, utilizing what I'm guessing are some cutting edge visual effects to make you actually believe that Woodley is in the middle of the ocean facing off against a massive hurricane.  He captures the intimidating expansiveness of the ocean while portraying Mother Nature at her most extraordinarily dangerous.  Secondly, there's Woodley herself (also serving as producer here), and there's rarely a false beat from her all throughout the film.  She's unendingly credible as a very desperate woman placed in a very desperate powder keg of a situation where one false step could lead to death.  Even when ADRIFT loses some storytelling momentum and oftentimes focus for what matters most in this tale of an iron willed woman's quest to stay alive we have the ever so capable Woodley steering the dramatic ship on the right course.  

ADRIFT sometimes comes across as Nicholas Sparks at sea, but its underlining tale of self preservation, the consummate directorial prowess on display, and the indomitable spirit of its lead actor helps elevate it above such a simplistic moniker. 

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