Shailene Woodley (“Divergent,” 2014) has a range unlike a lot of people you see in film today, and if you haven’t been a fan already, her electrifying turn in “Adrift” will make you one. But I’m getting ahead of myself here—let’s talk a bit about survival movies and how redundant most newer ones have felt of late. It’s only fair that for studios to have gone with another one, they would have to pick someone who’s walked those tightropes before. If there’s anyone who could have checked these niche boxes, it would have to be Baltasar Kormákur (“Everest,” 2015).
The organic evolution of Woodley’s character arc through the film’s duration only goes to prove it. Her pain, helplessness, rage, and determination reverberate through the screen to make its viewers empathize. It’s not all shock value and heartstring-tugs though—there’s enough backstory here to get us up to speed, and surprisingly, it’s told with patience and grace. Then again, its narrative forms most of John Gilbert (“Hacksaw Ridge,” 2016) and his stance on emotion-over-story. His understanding of the natural flow of a story’s emotional core while knitting films is what makes the frequent back-and-forth arresting enough, despite the cards being already on the table.
You can’t get to the end of the game without playing one though, and that’s why we’re served a breathless romance between Woodley and Sam Claflin (“Their Finest,” 2017), which turns out to be a surprisingly beneficial anchor to the story’s emotional core. Kormákur keeps it simple; a lot of it is quiet and unassuming, but it’s how effortlessly the two play off each other’s strengths that cooks up a storm (pun not intended). Theirs is a love that feels almost like an escapist fantasy—until you realize that this may actually have happened.
Based on the non-fiction book “Red Sky in Mourning” by Tami Oldham (who Woodley essays here), the film covers its author’s sweeping romance with Richard Sharp (Claflin), and the ill-fated journey they set out across the ocean. Now, sure, the makers would have fictionalized chunks of it—it’s a movie, after all—but there has to have been an inkling of truth to it all. The epilogue only goes to confirm this.
“Adrift” is not without its problems- often you’ll find a flashback that doesn’t serve much to take the characters or their journey forward, and the assortment of characters you’ll find interacting with the leads are either vague or straight-up nonexistent. (A conflict-building scene when one of the characters makes a crucial decision that will eventually set the wheels in motion is, sadly, a major sore point).
Stick around through. Weather those stormy winds, and you’ll find yourself emotionally investing in the universe and its people a lot more than you’d previously bargained. Warts and all, Baltasar Kormákur’s latest is gripping-often heart-wrenching-as a survival drama, but works as effectively as a sweeping romance, thanks to its two exceptionally talented leading actors. And if all else fails, Shailene Woodley won’t. With “Adrift,” she’s given one of her career-best performances since HBO’s “Big Little Lies” and Alexander Payne’s “The Descendants,” and her fantastic grip on the character she plays is worth every penny of your ticket.
“Adrift” is slightly rough around the edges, but that doesn’t make its plusses any less credible. Shailene Woodley absolutely shines in Baltasar Kormákur’s competently directed survival/romance drama that pushes viewers to emotionally invest in the lives of its characters, giving it the boost it needs to make its way to shore. Recommended.