In 1983, Tami Oldham survived 41 days lost at sea in a damaged sailboat, relying on her wits, her sailing knowledge, a few salvaged pieces of equipment and the vagaries of nature to get her back to civilization after a massive storm nearly destroyed the yacht she was on with her fiancé Richard Sharp and knocked the boat perilously off course. Adrift depicts Tami’s ordeal as a sort of romantic tragedy, a prolonged mourning period as much as a harrowing struggle for survival. The movie isn’t particularly convincing on either count, with a narrative structure that jumps back and forth between Tami and Richard’s earlier, happier times and the aftermath of the disaster at sea.
Shailene Woodley and Sam Claflin have minimal chemistry as Tami and Richard, who meet when Richard docks his sailboat in Tahiti. They’re both young, restless globe-trotters who never stay in one place for very long, but other than their shared wanderlust, there isn’t much to suggest the kind of deep connection that would inspire them to jump into a 4,000-mile ocean journey together. Acquaintances of Richard’s hire the couple to sail their gorgeous yacht from Tahiti to San Diego, and the couple eagerly take off for their latest adventure.
But after a tranquil few weeks at sea, Tami and Richard find themselves in the middle of a dangerous hurricane, which they barely survive. With most of their equipment (including communications) damaged beyond repair, and Richard severely injured, Tami must navigate the boat to safety while relying on her inner emotional strength to keep both Richard and herself from falling apart.
Or at least that’s the way the movie portrays the situation. In real life, there was a key difference, and the screenplay by Aaron Kandell, Jordan Kandell and David Branson Smith withholds that information in a corny, contrived way that puts Adrift closer to a Nicholas Sparks movie than something like J.C. Chandor’s gripping 2013 Robert Redford ocean-survival drama All Is Lost. By frequently cutting back to the bland, drippy romance, the filmmakers undercut the intensity of the peril, and Woodley’s performance, while solid, lacks the rawness to convey the true danger that Tami experienced. Claflin, in his second role as an invalid in love (after the far more manipulative tearjerker Me Before You) mostly just smiles and says supportive things.
Director Baltasar Kormákur stages some impressive action during the storm, but most of the movie takes place in calmer waters, and the end of Tami’s journey is a bit anticlimactic (albeit true to life). Kormákur did a better job of mixing interpersonal drama with the dangers of a harsh natural environment in 2015’s Everest, also based on true events, but he doesn’t generate nearly as much suspense in Adrift. The movie opens with Tami waking up disoriented on the boat after the storm, dropping the audience right into the middle of things, but the storm itself doesn’t make an appearance until nearly the end, and by that time all the intervening romantic platitudes have dulled its impact.