Woman vs. nature. It certainly has a ring to it, especially when woman wins. But there are too few such stories in our popular culture, and certainly on our movie screens.
Enter “Adrift,” based on the harrowing, real-life story of Tami Oldham, who sailed off on a romantic voyage from Tahiti to San Diego in 1983 with her fiance, Richard Sharp, and ran into a brutal hurricane. Oldham wrote of the ordeal — 41 days on the open seas in a damaged 44-foot sailboat — in her book, “Red Sky in Mourning,” and if you haven’t read it yet, good: Stop Googling and see the film first. You’ll be glad you didn’t know all the details beforehand.
Off the bat, “Adrift,” by Icelandic action director Baltasar Kormakur (“Everest”), has several things going for it. First of all, Kormakur is a lifelong sailor, and he chose to film on the open ocean off Fiji, lending the proceedings an obvious visual urgency. Second, the story is simple and thrilling — because it’s true. And third, Shailene Woodley, one of the most naturalistic young actresses working today, is hard not to root for in any film, and certainly here as Tami, a relaxed California girl suddenly caught in an elemental battle to survive.
Where the film could do better is in painting the characters with nuance and complexity. This is less necessary in the scenes on water — we have all the excitement we need there. But the scenes on land seem rather perfunctory, if still pleasing and romantic (nothing wrong with watching two attractive, tanned young people fall in love.)
We begin with Tami waking up after an obvious catastrophe, the boat practically destroyed. Stumbling around the wreckage, she comes to the devastating realization that Richard (Sam Claflin), the more experienced sailor of the two, is nowhere to be seen.
Flashback to five months earlier, when Tami arrives in Tahiti, a 23-year-old free spirit with no clear life plans. All she wants to do is see the world. She gets an odd job at the marina, where one day she meets Richard, a handsome young Brit who built his own boat and spends his life sailing.
These two good-looking creatures are immediately drawn to each other, and spend idyllic days sailing, cooking, drinking wine. Staring at the crimson sky one day, Tami proclaims it to be red. Richard quickly corrects her: Its “beet-dyed pomegranate,” OK, we get why she’s falling in love.
Then an irresistible opportunity arises: An older couple wants Richard to sail their boat back from Tahiti to San Diego. The terms are too attractive to pass up. Tami overcomes her initial reluctance to cut short her own, independent journey, and they head off into the deep blue.
And then disaster strikes, and suddenly these exceedingly capable people seem helpless against the ferocity of nature. At the worst moment, Richard fastens himself in, and shouts to Tami through the raging winds to go down below, where she’ll be safer.
The action toggles back and forth between happy scenes on land, and the ordeal at sea, which show Tami figuring out a way to stop the boat from sinking, then pulling a badly injured Richard from the waters and caring for his wounds while she tries to navigate, using nautical maps and her own desperate creativity. The land scenes provide some intermittent relief; on the other hand, they do stall the suspense.
The couple’s risky goal is to reach Hawaii, and Tami knows that if she makes an error, they’ll die. She also must figure out how to ration the fresh water and meager food supplies, which consist of sardines, some Spam, a jar of peanut butter. A committed vegetarian, she must cope with the reality that if she can’t kill and eat fish, she probably won’t make it.
Woodley’s honest, unfussy performance seems perfectly tailored to the script by Aaron Kandell, Jordan Kandell and David Branson Smith. Claflin makes Richard a dashing, sensitive romantic partner. The story is not complicated — nor does it need to be. Woman vs. sea. Woman triumphs. An apt story for 2018.
“Adrift,” an STX Entertainment release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America “for injury images, peril, language, brief drug use, partial nudity and thematic elements.” Running time: 120 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.
MPAA definition of PG-13: Parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.