It’s tempting to call Shailene Woodley a “sensual” actress, but let’s be clear about what, exactly, that means. Woodley, like Debra Winger, has the gift of making sensuality dramatic; there’s a beautiful severity to her features that allows you to feel the things she’s showing you. That’s a talent, but it’s also an instinct — what a genuine movie star has. And Woodley’s got it. In “Adrift,” she plays a troubled but ebullient 23-year-old globe-trotter named Tami Oldham (who’s a real person; the film is based on a true story), and whether Tami is settling into the island of Tahiti because that’s where the fates took her, or falling in love, or leaping off a cliff, or trying to figure out how to save herself after she wakes up in a drifting, damaged sailboat that’s thigh-deep in water, Woodley gives herself over to the physical and spiritual reality of each scene. She knows how to play an ordinary woman who’s wild at heart, and she keeps you captivated, even when the film itself is watchable in a perfectly competent, touching, and standard way.
Set in 1983, “Adrift” puts a minor original spin on the shipwrecked-loner genre. It’s the tale of what happens when Tami ends up lost at sea, after a storm has battered but not broken the sailboat she’s on. But it’s also a love story that keeps cutting back to the relationship that led her to be on that boat in the first place.
Tami, a refugee from middle-class San Diego, is fleeing a family that sounds less than ideal (though the details are sketchy), and she’s slacking around, treating her life as a vacation, looking for the odd job that will pay her “enough to get me to the next place.” In Tahiti, she lands some boat repair work, and it’s on the docks that she meets Richard Sharp (Sam Claflin), who is elegant, British, sexy, restless, philosophical, and suave, not to mention highly modest and self-deprecating. In his courtly beard (think millennial Richard Chamberlin), he’s a dreamboat answer to toxic masculinity, and Claflin, known for his roles in the “Hunger Games” and “Huntsman” films, has mastered the old-fashioned art of infusing chivalry with soul.
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Richard seems almost too good to be true, but the catch isn’t that he has a hidden dark side — it’s that he’s actually interesting, a self-styled sailor-adventurer in his mid-30s who enjoys the games of civilization but likes getting away from them even more. (He’s wild at heart, too.) Claflin and Woodley make this an entrancing duet, approaching each other with enough heat, spirit, and awkward dance moves to show you that romance hasn’t gone out of style. These two convince you they belong together because they never look like they’re trying to.
Their union is all bound up with the sea, with a mutual desire to taste life without the boundaries. Richard asks Tami to sail around the world with him, and just as she’s getting ready to say yes, he receives a more prosaic offer: Old friends ask him if he’ll sail their boat back to California for $10,000. It’s a 4,000-mile journey, and it’s one of those karmic coincidences that the destination happens to be San Diego, the hometown that Tami has been heading to the ends of the earth to avoid. How could he, or she, say no?
The boat is a luxury yacht, with everything they could need…until the storm hits. It is, as destiny would have it, a category-four hurricane, and let me say this unequivocally: Baltasar Kormákur, the Icelandic-born director of “Adrift,” gives great storm. Watching the tumultuous towering rainy dark waves, I realized how just about every cataclysmic storm at sea in the movies involves a boat…that’s not really going anywhere. It’s just sitting in the middle of the maelstrom, rocked up and down by the waves. The sailboat in “Adrift” keeps moving, fast, approaching each violent black wall of water as if it were cruising toward Godzilla, and the effect is terrifying.
The film opens with Tami waking up after the disaster. She’s alive, and the boat is sea-worthy (it has just flipped around a couple of times), but Richard is nowhere to be seen. Then, miraculously, he turns up. Alive. Reasonably intact except for a nasty gash in his shin. The two survivors gather forces, strategize, and use their fingers to feed each other an orgiastic meal of peanut butter. (Tami, a staunch vegetarian, starts off by refusing to eat any raw fish, but she comes to realize that her culinary purity is a luxury she can’t afford.) They also draw closer. But all is not as it seems.
For long passages of “Adrift,” we’re pleasantly engrossed without necessarily being riveted. The courtship, heartfelt as it is, has a glorified YA shimmer; the boat-adrift-at-sea sections are like “All Is Lost” without the ingenuity. But there’s a hook, a surprise, a twist that carries you through. Audiences who seek out this movie will feel, by the end, more pleased than not. They may even be sizable. But whether or not that’s the case, what matters in “Adrift” is that Shailene Woodley immerses herself — in the ocean, in love, in acting — in a way that connects. Even when lost at sea, she lets us feel found.