In my review of Adrift, I compared this romantic-drama to the movie adaptations of Nicholas Sparks novels. That was in part because of its focus on a dreamy love story between beautiful people in a lovely setting, who are streaked with tragedy. But, it was also a sly nod to a shocking element of the film’s final act. Let’s dig into the spoilers that have audiences drop-jawed.
Major spoilers below.
The trailers for Adrift establish it is based on a true story of love and survival against incredible odds. At 24, Tami Oldham was a California girl with wanderlust in her heart when she met charming Brit/skilled sailor Richard Sharp. They both loved the sea and sailing, and so a job transporting a yacht 4000 miles from Tahiti to San Diego seemed ideal for the couple. But then the merciless Hurricane Raymond turned this dream into a living nightmare.
In the movie, Tami awakens to find herself in the hull of the Hazana, battered, bleeding, and alone. She cries out for Richard, shattered to think he may have fallen overboard and drowned. When all hope seems lost, she spots the boat’s dinghy drifting a short distance away. She pulls herself together to mend the holes in the boat’s sides, drain the hull of water, and erect a sail to get over to the dinghy where Richard is hanging on by his fingernails.
Tami rescues him, but his leg is busted, boasting an open wound from which his bone protrudes. His ribs are broken, his chest a map of purple bruises. He is helpless, and so she must carry on about the business of survival herself. Tami does the math to determine their positions. She decides the course, the navigation, the rations, and—when pressed—gives up on her veganism to spearfish for sustenance. And day and night, she talks with Richard, keeping calm and happy for him. She cuddles him and sings to him and cajoles him. Then, in the final act, Adrift offers its gut-punch of a reveal: Richard never made it back on that boat.
It’s a twist reminiscent of Sparks’ Safe Haven, in which the ghost of the love interest’s dead wife plays matchmaker to the naive protagonist. (I said what I said.) And considering Adrift is based on real events, this twist might feel like a ludicrous stretching of truth. But much of this movie is authentic to Oldham’s account, which she shared in the memoir Red Sky in Mourning: A True Story of Love, Loss and Survival at Sea. The details of the hurricane and her 41 days adrift are dedicatedly captured. But Adrift’s screenwriters (Aaron Kandell, Jordan Kandell, and David Branson Smith) took a romantic leap with Richard’s return.
In a 2003 interview with The Chicago Tribune , Oldham said, “Definitely the hardest part was dealing with Richard being gone. There were times I didn’t even want to live anymore because I didn’t know how I was going to go on. I was never going to fall in love again.” She adds that being in “survival mode” helped stave off her grief and that an inner voice guided her when she was on the brink of giving up. In real life, that voice wasn’t Richard’s. “People want to convince me it was God,” she said, “But I don’t know. I think, personally, it was my inner spirit.”
However, for the purpose of a movie, an inner voice can play flatly onscreen, often taking the shape of a smothering voiceover and lazy writing that tells instead of shows. Instead, the screenwriters made Richard this encouraging voice, and in doing so enhanced the romance angle of the film. Because in this instance, Tami isn’t just fighting for her own survival but also for his. She creates a fiction that helps pull her through, and so he is wounded and she has to do it all on her own. But at least she’s not all alone.
After this truth is revealed, flashbacks show previous scenes, now without him: Tami cuddling his abandoned sweater, relishing in peanut butter by herself, and crying as she says she’d trade nothing for the memory of their love. While Adrift’s take isn’t literally true in this section, its true to the spirit of Oldham’s story, in that it pays respect to her love of Sharp. And Oldham gave the film her seal of approval, collaborating with the screenwriters and director Baltasar Kormákur for the five years it took to develop. At the premiere, she said, “I think they honored my story very well.”
Adrift’s stars, Shailene Woodley and Sam Claflin, alongside its inspiration Tami Oldham.
Now unlike Safe Haven, Richard is not a ghost. Adrift establishes two related explanations for his appearance and Tami’s intense interactions with him. On their first date, Richard recounts some of the troubles of long-distance sailing, noting sunburn, sleep deprivation, and hallucinations. Weeks into being lost at sea, Tami awakes in the night to see a massive ship towering over her. She fires flares and cries for rescue, but it breezes past her and disappears, and she screams in horror, “Is this a hallucination?” When Richard stirs, she doesn’t ask him if he’s seen the ship.
Before the storm hit, Richard said something else that plants the seed for his reappearance. Before proposing, he tells Tami about how he keeps his late mother with him, by imagining her as a voice that guides him. And so Adrift establishes a totally non-supernatural explanation for how Richard returns to encourage Tami. That he was never really there post-hurricane also explains some of Tami’s more puzzling behavior, like when she’d cozy up against his broken ribs or gave up on spearfishing after acknowledging there was definitely not enough food for both of them. But the biggest clue about this reveal was in the opening.
The first image of the film is an ambiguous aquatic darkness. You see a figure in a yellow rubber slicker float past the camera, seemingly sinking. On its chest, a red beacon flashes dimly. It’s murky, so its hard to make out through the water. But soon we’re above it, and with Tami on the boat, where she is stirring. When he appears on the dinghy later, you might dismiss that image as a dream or nightmare. But finally, we—like Tami—must accept that Richard is gone. Yet not forgotten.
The film’s final title credits reveal Sharp was washed overboard in the hurricane and presumed dead. Then comes an image of Oldham and the inspiring caption that tells us she never stopped sailing.
In the 2003 interview, she reveals she also learned to love again. “My life moved on and I got married,” she shared, “And while I was having my first child I decided that it was time to write the book. I had always wanted to write it. I couldn’t believe how much I was still holding around in my head, and just purging it like that really helped me to get past it all. Now I choose when to think about it, instead of it being always there.”
Oldham and her daughter at the Adrift premiere.