Theirs was a romance that seemed like something out of a Nicholas Sparks movie. Tami Oldham was a carefree 24-year-old bumming around the world on odd jobs and schooners. In Tahiti, she crossed paths with a dashing sailor, 33-year-old Richard Sharp, who’d built his beautiful boat by hand. Both had faced tragedies but looked at life as an opportunity for joy and adventure. They fell in love hard and fast against gorgeous backdrops. They dreamed of sailing the world together. But their romance hit rough seas, literally. Theirs is the story at the heart of the riveting romantic drama Adrift.
Based on real events, Adrift follows the ill-fated voyage that nearly cost both lovers their lives. Shailene Woodley and Sam Claflin star as Tami and Richard, who were hired to sail a 44-foot yacht from Tahiti to San Diego. That’s 4000 miles, or 70,400 football fields, or traveling the width of the United States’ mainland, and half the way back again. It’s a hell of a long trip is what I’m saying. And on top of sunburn, sleep deprivation, and seasickness that come along with such sea travels, the couple was also confronted with the merciless Hurricane Raymond, which killed their engine, crippled the mainsail, and left Richard gravely wounded. When the clouds part and the waves settle, it’s all up to Tami to mend the sinking boat, navigate the course, ration the food, and keep it together to survive.
This is a story of survival. Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur brings a stirring gravity to sequences where Tami dives overboard to rescue Richard, spearfishes to extend their food supply, or battles with a jammed rudder. But this is also a romance, and not only in how Kormákur regards the story of Tami and Richard, but also how he regards their shared love of the sea. Underwater shots in moments of tension reflect the fear of Tami’s situation as the camera chases her hard-kicking feet. This framing might make you think of Jaws or a dozen other shark-infested movies. There’ll be no sharks in these waters, but you don’t need them. These shots deftly remind us death is always nipping at her heels, and the tension is choking. However, Kormákur also shows us moments of bliss underwater.
As Tami and Richard’s romance blossoms in lush jungles, pristine beaches, and dizzying cliffs, Kormákur takes us under water once more. This time, we’re offered Tami peacefully meditating, her feet embracing a round boulder to keep her grounded, her hair floating about like a school of glistening goldfish. We see her and Richard tumble, cuddle, and fondle underwater. We see the beauty that attracts them, just as we see the dangers the sea also offers. And so the sea becomes a perfect metaphor for love itself. In both, there is pleasure and pain. And you have to accept both or neither. In a tearful moment of regret, Richard—his ribs broken, his right leg broken with a protruding bone and infection setting in—wishes Tami had never met him because then she wouldn’t be in this dire situation. But this tenacious young woman shakes off the thought, telling him that she wouldn’t trade their love for anything.
Woodley and Claflin bring this love story to life, delivering a playful but grounded verve to the screen. Winsome and warm, Claflin is perfectly cast as a romantic lead. His sheepish smile plays as a sparkling foil to Woodley’s mischievous grin. When his strong arms wrap around her waist, you may well swoon as cinematographer Robert Richardson (Kill Bill, Inglorious Basterds, The Aviator) brings a color palette that emits a tropical heat. While the two flirt, dance, and entangle, you can feel the sun on their skin, and almost smell the sweet sweat and flowers that permeate the air that swirls around them.
Yet Woodley shoulders the film, playing the blithe wanderer who fled a troubled home life to seek out the horizon. In the Tahiti portion, she is radiant, drinking in every joy of the paradise around her and the handsome hunk holding onto her. Hers seems a dream life we’d love to sink into, and Adrift gives us that vicarious thrill. But once the storm hits, Woodley’s role becomes fiercely physical, demanding she swim, sail, and scrape as if her life depends on it. She handles all this with aplomb, and makes a scene of eating peanut butter relatably orgasmic. Her only struggles come in maneuvering some tin-eared dialogue from screenwriters Aaron Kandell, Jordan Kandell, and David Branson Smith. Scenes that unfurl tragic backstories are done with grace and wit. But when Tami is at her breaking point, her words are clumsily crafted screeches and pleas, that had some of the audience chirping with laughter.
Still, Adrift is excellent. Its story is fascinating. Its performances are captivating. Its atmosphere is enveloping. But best of all might be its structure. Rather than chronologically told, the script bobs from past to present. The film begins with Tami awaking from unconsciousness in the hull of the boat. Her head is bleeding, her clothes are torn, her surroundings are flooded, and Richard is missing. Adrift begins with her panic and desperation, then crashes back to five months before. This repeated back and forth gives the audience relief from the lovers’ bleak present by treating us to the delights of their past. Then in the third act, a more thoughtful reason for this to-and-fro is revealed, which makes it all the more sophisticated and satisfying. (But more on that Monday, this is a spoiler-free review.)
Adrift is a film with startling intimacy, grounded romance, and sly sophistication. It’s beautiful to behold, lush with besotted close-ups of alluring people and longing wide shots of astonishing land and seascapes. With Richardson’s striking cinematography, Kormákur captures the awe and power of the ocean and—by extension—of love. Working with editor John Gilbert, he crafted a journey whose moods ebb and flow like waves, bringing us despair then joy, devastation then hope. Kormákur takes us on a journey filled with breathtaking highs and gut-churning lows, allowing audiences to touch the experience of this incredible tale of survival and love.
In a summer that’s stuffed with big stars and bigger spectacle, a movie as small and unglamorous as Adrift might easily be overlooked. But here lies something special. And to fully appreciate the grandeur of the sea it adores, you really must see it on the big screen.