It’s so rare to see a woman at the center of a survival story. That’s what grabs you right away in “Adrift,” starring Shailene Woodley as Tami Oldham, based on Oldham’s incredible life story. Right away, we’re thrown below deck in the aftermath of a brutal Pacific Ocean storm as Tami comes to in a sinking yacht, bleeding from a head injury, struggling to survive. So often female characters are relegated to worried wives and mothers waiting for a call, so it’s downright refreshing to witness the depiction of a woman as independently strong, capable and determined to survive.
Of course, because this is a Hollywood movie, there’s a love story incorporated into this female “All Is Lost,” but it was a love story in real life, too. As soon as Tami realizes her whereabouts, she starts shouting for her partner, her captain and lover, Richard (Sam Claflin). As she discovers his safety line dangling loose, she wails in grief and agony, and the film takes us back to an earlier time, when Tami landed in Tahiti.
It’s 1983 and free-spirited itinerant surfer Tami is looking for odd jobs to keep her traveling around the world and away from San Diego as long as she can. When a handsome British sailor, Richard, navigates into port, it’s love at first sight, and the adventurous twosome plan to sail the world. But first, they need to earn some money, so they accept a gig delivering a luxury sailing yacht, Hazana, to San Diego for a wealthy older couple.
The film flashes between Tami and Richard’s sweet courtship in Tahiti and the aftermath of the storm spent aboard the wrecked Hazana, adrift on the Pacific for 41 days. The relationship is at the core of the story. It is both the relationship that brought Tami to this place, and the relationship that keeps them alive. She sets about repairing and righting the ship with a frantic energy. She miraculously discovers a gravely wounded, barely alive Richard clinging to the dinghy in the middle of the sea and nurses him aboard the boat. She navigates their way thousands of miles to Hawaii with a sextant, a wristwatch and her intuition.
Icelandic director Baltasar Kormakur, a sailor and helmer of “The Deep” and “Everest,” is the perfect filmmaker for the tale. The geography of the boat is dynamic and multi-faceted, never claustrophobic. Tami owns every inch of the craft – underneath and around it, inside and on top. There are many incredible underwater stunts as she makes her vessel as seaworthy as possible, a tiny person wrestling this 55-foot boat into submission.
The untethered, charismatic Tami is a role perfectly suited for Woodley, who also produced the film, written by brothers Aaron and Jordan Kandell and David Branson Smith. Her performance is athletic, physical and full of life, whether she’s exploring the waterfalls of Tahiti or scrambling to keep the trashed Hazana afloat. Woodley brings a real sense of desperation to Tami’s physicality – she’s skilled and resourceful but appears to be acting with a near-manic instinct.
Claflin balances Tami’s untamed spirit with a warm and grounded presence. The two performers share an easy, palpable chemistry that always keeps the film on course, through maelstroms, flashbacks and hallucinations as they drift, alone, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, for over 40 days.
But while the love story gives “Adrift” its emotional center, and the script twists itself in knots to privilege the tale, the real guts and strength of the film belongs to Tami. Ultimately, “Adrift” is just about her and her will to survive, just a young woman and the sea, and it’s a profound thing to see on screen.