Though it has much in common with other true-life survival stories brought to the big screen in recent years, “Adrift” sets itself apart thanks to a strong script and compelling performances from its two leads, Shailene Woodley and Sam Claflin.

Those elements, complemented by beautiful photography and a haunting music score, all deliver an immersive cinematic experience that can serve as a break for movie goers from summer’s loud, expensive blockbusters.

What’s it about?

Woodley stars as Tami Oldham, who audiences meet as a 23-year-old literally drifting through life from destination to destination, staying in one place and working just long enough to make enough money to move on to the next new place.

While in Tahiti in 1983, she meets Richard Sharp (Claflin), who like Tami has eschewed a rooted existence and is instead living life on the water, sailing around the world. The two instantly find a connection, and its not long at all before they’re talking about future adventures on the water together.

But their next journey runs headlong into Hurricane Raymond, which at its peak was one of the strongest Pacific hurricanes ever recorded. The storm cripples the yacht they’re aboard and leaves Richard injured and immobilized.

Without a radio or modern navigating equipment, and with their supplies dwindling, it falls to Tami to find ways to keep them alive and on course back to civilization. But as the days stretch on and more privations present themselves, their very will to survive is tested beyond anything they could have anticipated.

Psychology of survival

Based on Tami Oldham Ashcroft’s memoir ″Red Sky in Mourning: A True Story of Love, Loss and Survival at Sea,” “Adrift” is primarily a character study, an examination of the psychology of survival and of connection between individuals.

Working from a script by Aaron and Jordan Kandell (“Moana”), director Baltasar Kormákur (“Everest”) keeps the narrative lens focused squarely on his leads, utilizing lots of tight shots to capture the play of emotions on the faces of Woodley and Claflin through both the pleasure of their relationship developing and the privation that challenges their bond.

He also stages breathtaking sequences, both thrilling and terrifying, at sea, immersing audiences in an undeniable feeling of authenticity. Woodley’s and Claflin’s performances add to that feeling, drawing you in with both charm and raw emotion, as the scenes and circumstances dictate.

The film’s musical score is also worth noting in terms of the atmosphere the film creates. German composer Hauschka keeps things simple, his piano-driven score effectively accentuating the heights and depths of the film’s emotional progression.

Not everything works

That said, Kormákur does make some questionable choices in “Adrift.”

The film’s progression is anything but linear – the film shifts back and forth in time, which has the unintended effect of robbing the film of narrative momentum. Just when audiences might feel things really start to get going, time shifts again, and emotional and tonal shifts can be jarring.

The film also suffers from pacing issues. At two hours the film feels too long, and while the emotions conveyed by the actors are compelling, it’s tough to maintain their impact, especially with the film’s non-linear construction.

Worth seeing?

“Adrift” can serve a number of purposes, especially with its release timed just after Memorial Day and almost a solid month of box-office record-breaking sequels and action extravaganzas.

For fans of Woodley and Claflin, who have each built their fan bases in part through successful appearances in the “Hunger Games” and “Divergent” series, it’s a chance to see their favorites deliver memorable turns. Woodley especially shines here, showing once again she can handle carrying films that have both considerable physical and emotional demands.

It’s also a solid date film, and it can serve as a moment to pause and enjoy something not driven exclusively by adrenaline.

Not everyone needs that pause, however. If you’re loving the summer movie season and can’t wait for the next studio tentpole event movie, then save “Adrift” for a rental down the line.


Starring Shailene Woodley, Sam Claflin. Directed by Baltasar Kormákur.
Running time: 120 minutes
Rated PG-13 for injury images, peril, language, brief drug use, partial nudity and thematic elements.