Nature survival films offer opportunities to portray humanity at its most enduring, especially when they are based on real-life events. In keeping with other film norms, there are very few of these types of films that focus on women’s stories. But when they are, it allows women, both as actors and characters, to step outside of the boxes that are set around them. Such situations demand that we strip away all the societal requirements and conventions for the characters to make it through to the end and by doing so frees them, to a certain extent, to be seen as only an individual. Adrift offers just this opportunity, it tells the true story of a woman surviving alone in a half-broken ship that is adrift on the ocean, with only a small sail and rudder to guide her course.
Tami Oldham (Shailene Woodley) traveled the world with her backpack and her wits for 5 years before meeting an experienced sailor, Richard Sharp (Sam Claflin) in Tahiti and it’s almost love at first sight. After a few weeks of whirlwind romance, they are offered the chance to bring a friend’s 44 ft. sailing yacht home to San Diego, a trip that’s over 4000 miles and crosses the Pacific Ocean. A few weeks into their journey the run into Hurricane Raymond, a category 4 storm that almost decimates their ship, destroying sails and navigational equipment. Tami, who stays inside the cabin of the ship during the worst part of the storm, is knocked out, and when she wakes up she finds that she has sustained a head injury, the ship is badly damaged and Richard has been swept overboard.
Desperate to find him she searches the surrounding ocean and miraculously locates the dingy where Richard has somehow clung on, despite being terribly injured. Tami drags him on board and builds a makeshift shelter at one end of the ship but he is completely incapacitated, leaving Tami to bring them home. After checking their maps Tami decides to aim for Hawaii, a 1600-mile journey that will take weeks, using only a small storm sail, a sextant, and a watch to bring them home. Surviving on a very limited supply of fresh water and canned food, Tami endures innumerable hardships and uncertainty as she navigates the desolate ocean, but she never gives up despite everything that is thrown at her.
Too often survival films will change events to fit within a typical movie structure and while Adrift certainly makes some interesting narrative changes, it ops to forgo that technique in favor of something more involved. The film opens in the middle of the story, just after the storm has hit when Tami wakes up to find the devastation and loss of Richard. From there it flashes back and forth between the beginning of Tami and Richards relationship and Tami’s efforts to find help in the barren expanse of the ocean. By telling the story in this way it holds the most dramatic parts, the storm and the end of Tami’s ordeal, until the final scenes which allows the tension to build in a way that avoids the formulaic nature that plague these types of films.
The trailers strongly imply that Adrift is a love story, but in fact, it is about a woman discovering her own strength as she is forced into difficult circumstances. Tami is the focus of the film, we learn about her past, her motivations and hopes, while Richard is given just enough backstory to be interesting. The dual storytelling of the film allows us to see both Tami’s vulnerability and self-doubts at the same time we see her discovering her strengths. It also makes a wise choice not to sexualize Tami in any way, despite the occasional shots of her nude body.
While there were so many good choices made regarding the structure and story of the film, none of it would have worked without a capable actress, and they chose well when they cast Shailene Woodley. In her previous film work she has been pretty good, but up until very recently has been stuck in roles as either side characters in television or in teen melodramas. Big Little Lies was her first chance to do complex work, but as a member of an ensemble cast, we don’t get to see enough of her. In Adrift she drives the film and her strength and dedication is apparent in every moment as she pushes her way through the difficult events on screen. Woodley displays a vulnerability and determination that make it easy to forget she is an actress performing a role and see her as only her character.
Adrift is a film that would scream Oscar bait were it premiering in the fall, but its release in the early summer allows audiences to see it as just another movie. While this frees it to be appreciated for its merits, it also limits the number of viewers who will see it. The substandard marketing efforts hide the most interesting part of the film, Tami’s self-discovery, in favor of selling it as a typical love-conquers-all story. For those who are willing to take a chance, Adrift is an engrossing tale of a woman’s survival in harsh circumstances with an inspired performance by Shailene Woodley and may end up being one of the better films this year.