In the grand tradition of shipwreck films such as The Martian, All is Lost, and Castaway, the movie Adrift leans heavily on the star power of its lead. The same goes for Adrift’s Shailene Woodley, who plays Tami. Luckily, Woodley manages to remain an compelling actress to watch. Whether it be in her breakout film The Descendants, the tween obsession The Fault in Our Stars, or my personal favorite The Spectacular Now, Woodley proves she can carry a film on her shoulders. There’s also a quality to her, separate from her acting roles, and it plays an important part in the success of Adrift. It’s Shailene Woodley the “star” and her image as the outdoorsy, outspoken, hippie chick that protests and is arrested at Standing Rock that seals the deal on this film.
Adrift is based on the true story of Tami, a young American women who’s (you guessed it) adrift in her life. She knows she doesn’t want to go home to San Diego, but she’s unsure of where her next destination will be after she’s lived on the beaches of Mexico and worked on a sailboat to Tahiti. While doing a day job at a marina in Tahiti, Tami meets Richard (Sam Claflin), a handsome English sailor who’s built his own boat and has sailed around the world – also without an immediate plan. These two tanned, gorgeous, lust-for-life humans obviously fall madly in love and when they get the opportunity to sail a fancy yacht from Tahiti to San Diego for a rich couple that needs to fly home, the giddy couple embark on a trip that goes quickly from carefree to catastrophic. They find themselves in the middle of Hurricane Raymond.
The structure of the film takes a really smart turn by telling the story in a non-linear fashion, starting with Tami emerging from the bowels of the boat, post Hurricane, intercut with the scenes of them meeting each other and the building of their romance in Tahiti, along with scenes of the Hurricane. This way the very visceral (and potentially nauseating) scenes of Tami and Richard battling the storm, coupled with the exhausting/depressing scenes of trying to find the way back to land when the boat has been pushed astronomically off course, do not drain the audience completely because there’s the reprieve of a love story.
Claflin is handsome and charming; it’s easy to understand why someone wouldn’t mind sailing around the world with him. He and Woodley have lovely, believable chemistry. While their more joyful scenes are restorative as a viewer, the dialogue between them is awfully cheesy: they debate how to describe a sunset, and define their relationship by how Tami wears a flower in her hair. Had it been told in a linear way, this would be too much. There’s an interesting presence to Claflin on scene. He’s dashing, but also allows Woodley to easily steal focus in every scene (similar to his role with Emilia Clarke in Me Before You). There’s something inherently sexy about an actor that lets the actress carry the film.
The role of Richard was long slated to be played by Miles Teller until he had to bow out for scheduling issues. He and Woodley also share kinetic chemistry (see The Spectacular Now) but Teller can be a consistent scene-stealer. It may have been a very different movie with Teller in that role, and one much less successful. That’s because this truly is Woodley’s film to carry (so much so that’s she’s also a producer on the film).
While she does look great when she’s in romance mode, there’s a nice, realistic lack of vanity in this film for Woodley. Yes, she’s tan and fit, but it’s the tan and physique of someone who spends all day outside working on a boat (and maybe not reapplying sunscreen). It’s obvious that as she’s stranded on a sailboat for 40 days, she’s going to look frail and very sunburnt, but even before the danger starts, Woodley’s Tami looks like a freckled, messy-haired beach dweller. It’s pretty, but it doesn’t scream red carpet star. What also sells this film is the belief that as Tami navigates a boat and shows off intense survival skills, Woodley looks like a woman who could physically pull it off, whether she’s spearing a fish to fixing a sail.
One of the film’s flaws is Tami remains unknown beyond a messy childhood. Obviously the survival story is THE formative experience in making the real life Tami who she is today, but as for fictional Tami, the audience doesn’t see her in any other context beyond Richard and a brief scene with a fellow deckhand (when she meets Richard). Adrift hinges so much on Woodley’s appeal that we must do the work of filling in much of who Tami is, and a lot of that becomes a projection of how audiences see Woodley. If they view her as just another young actress who can afford to play hippie because she makes a Hollywood salary, Adrift may fall apart. But if you see Woodley as free-spirited and tough, it’s easy to root for her.