Sam Claflin and Shailene Woodley star in Adrift
Credit: Kirsty Griffin/STXfilms

Based on Tami Oldham Ashcraft’s memoir about a two-handed sailing voyage that capsizes into tragedy, the new high-seas adventure Adrift is essentially two movies in one. The first is a white-knuckle survival tale featuring crashing 40-foot CG swells and 140-knot winds; the other is a slightly sappy Nicholas Sparks-esque romance. One of these halves works better than the other. You can probably guess which.

Shailene Woodley (Divergent, The Fault in Our Stars) stars as Tami — an American free spirit drifting around the world and taking manual-labor jobs on boats while sailing from one exotic port of call to the next looking for life experiences. Like a more well-adjusted cast member on Bravo’s Below Deck, she’s independent, intrepid, and hard not to admire thanks to Woodley’s sunbeam charisma. In Tahiti, she meets another like-minded wanderer – a ruggedly handsome Brit named Richard (played by The Hunger Games’ Sam Claflin) who’s been sailing solo (metaphor alert!) for a while. They fall for one another and decide to head off into the horizon together.

The early stages of the young couple’s carefree love affair in the tropics show them high-diving into impossibly turquoise grottos, filling one another in on the backstories of their lives, and reenacting From Here to Eternity’s sandy make-out session. They swoon, and if you’re the kind of moviegoer who’s considered a photo of rain-soaked Ryan Gosling kissing Rachel McAdams as a screensaver, then you’re sure to swoon, too. But then Richard bumps into a retired British couple he knows. They’ve been called back home and need someone to sail their yacht to San Diego. They’re offering $10,000, which would fund their shared dream of sailing around the world together. He and Tami take them up on the offer.

That’s when disaster strikes in the Old Testament form of a category-4 hurricane…

Directed by Baltasar Kormákur, the Icelandic director of such muscular adventures and high-adrenaline action flicks as Everest and 2 Guns, Adrift isn’t quite as linear as I’m making it sound. From the opening scene, the film cuts back and forth between the dreamy and the nightmarish — between the early days of Tami and Richard’s idyllic romance and the aftermath of the wrath at sea that leaves their boat bobbing like a crumbling cork in the Pacific.

It’s all done expertly and with an unexpectedly deft sleight-of-hand twist in the homestretch that proves once again that Kormákur is the kind of overachieving director that one pigeonholes at their own risk. He has a knack for making the pedestrian feel surprising and fresh. The survival scenes, which span more than 40 days at sea, focus mostly on Tami’s desperation and quick thinking under pressure and are like Woodley’s own version of Robert Redford’s one-man show, All Is Lost. To her credit, it never feels like a performance.

Adrift is what you might call “a pleasant-surprise picture”. You walk into the theater readying yourself for a slight variation of something you’ve seen a million times before done with a baseline level of filmmaking competence. Nothing more. But by the time the end credits roll, you’ll probably say either to yourself or the person you’re with: “Hey, that was a lot better than I expected!” I realize that may not sound like the highest compliment, but it’s one we don’t get to give enough these days. B

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