Shailene Woodley Fights for Life and Love in “Adrift,” by “Moana” Writers the Kandells

“Moana” twin writer team tailored “The Descendants” star a punishing new role that included 14-hour days filming in the ocean off Fiji. But she does romance dreamboat Sam Claflin in a film based on a castaway’s tale that thrilled Hawai‘i in 1983.
Adrift film
Photos: Courtesy of Aloha Agency


Agood film about a young woman lost at sea and in a sea of love, Adrift is anything but unmoored. It’s also very different from what we’ve come to expect in our long celluloid affair with man-against-nature movies—you know, The Revenant, Castaway, All Is Lost, A Perfect Storm and so on. For one thing, it’s a woman-against-nature story.


Now playing at local theaters, Adrift also has the good timing to feel like a perfect complement to Kīlauea’s fiery eruption. It’s a visceral Pacific Ocean opera, benefiting from you-are-there camerawork and knowing direction by Iceland’s king of extreme adventure, Baltasar Kormákur (The Deep and Everest).


Based on Tami Oldham and Richard Sharp’s sailing voyage that turned desperate when a Category 4 hurricane veered unexpectedly into their path, the film moves fore and aft in time, sketching in the couple’s meetup and budding relationship, then plunging us into the maw of aquatic hell and its aftermath. Deft and economical, the storytelling by local writers Aaron and Jordan Kandell (with a script assist from David Branson Smith) creates space for Shailene Woodley to dig deep into her character as Tami. It’s a moving performance (and one far more deserving of accolades than Robert Redford’s stone-faced seafarer in All Is Lost).


We first meet Tami as a 23-year-old boat rat, rambler and low-stakes drifter. Pulling into a harbor in Tahiti on an interisland schooner, she slings her seabag over her shoulder and hops down the gangway like a, well, a sailor on liberty.

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This is the second thing the film does differently in respect to its other genre—the hot-mess-girl-on-a-journey-of-discovery, notably Wild. Made from the best-seller by Cheryl Strayed, Wild turned a very long trek on the Pacific Crest Trail into a step-by-step blueprint for overcoming Strayed’s overall ineptitude at this hiking thing while also vanquishing various personal demons, including a taste for heroin and casual sex. The formula works; see also Sandra Bullock in Gravity.


But Adrift’s Tami isn’t inept or even down on her luck. Score one for the Kandells, the twins who were brought in on the Moana script to bring Oceanic authenticity and voyaging canoe chops (Aaron put in some training time on the Hōkūle‘a). Though only 23, Tami is no little girl lost. And how Woodley puts this across is what elevates the character and the film.


On the road and self-supporting ever since the day she graduated high school, Tami has left her past behind—especially San Diego, her party hearty mother and absent, sometimes crazy-acting father. When we first glimpse her hopping off that interisland schooner, she’s blithe enough to tell the burly Tahitian customs officer that she has no plans, little money and no time table—and charms him into stamping her passport and allowing her entry anyway.


As these and the next scenes show, Woodley’s Tami is a version of the old staple of adventure films, always played by a he, of course: Ryan Gosling (Drive), Peter O’Toole (Lord Jim) and Humphrey Bogart (Casablanca, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre). The wanderer, tough and self-contained, a mercenary who needs nobody and keeps his own counsel.

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Well, make that her own counsel now.


And what Woodley does to build that character is something to watch. Her body is muscled and her gait has a sailor’s roll, her hair is a salty tangle and when she smiles her lips form a flattened, muscular grimace—like a tensed animal. Everything about her is in subtle but marked contrast to the perky flirt she teams up with in her first Tahiti job she can land, scraping paint blisters off of boat hulls. That’s the very definition of entry level boatyard: hot, dirty, ill-paid (no doubt off the books). It’s one of many knowing touches that demonstrate how well the film’s creators know and respect the seafaring life (again, totally unlike the Redford vehicle All Is Lost, which sailors around the world ridicule over pints and darts at their locals). 


The flirty girl from New Zealand immediately tries to pull rank and alpha blonde dominance on Tami, who shrugs it off. When a strange new boat slips into the anchorage and the handsome bearded devil at the helm asks for help tying up, the flirt quickly gets close and chatty while Tami quietly ties off his bowline.


Wouldn’t you know it, the bearded guy is English—Sam Claflin wields a dreamboat smile like a magic wand—and, to top it off, is single-handedly sailing his 36-foot sloop that he built himself around the world, which totally overqualifies him as The Bachelor in this patch of paradise. That he ignores the Kiwi and heads straight for Tami is all we need to know about his character.

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In the sea-going survival stories of old, there was always a moment when our hero, a handsome but nicked-up hunk with a bit of a backstory, comes out of his hard shell and does something out of character but utterly redeeming: joins an indigenous tribe’s battle against white colonizers (Lord Jim), gives up the girl to a noble but bland symbol of justice (Casablanca), takes a death-blow from a contract killer to spare a struggling single mother (Drive).


All Tami does is fall in love. Slowly, shedding her armor, allowing her inner beauty to rejuvenate the outer. It’s an actorly tour de force. Woodley has coaxed quite a performance out of the material and, in these #MeToo days, could well nab a nomination.


This in itself would be enough for your average film about personal growth and survival. More than enough, when you add in the performance director Kormákur wrings out of his Pacific Ocean—gorgeous in love’s early days, menacing and then brutal (and insanely noisy) when things go south.


But the story has more to offer than Das Boot rebooted on a teak-paneled luxury yacht. There is, in fact, a plot twist that pulls the mainsheet out from under you, if you’re as wrapped up in the action as I was. (My wife says she saw it coming … like, five whole seconds before.) That’s all we need to say about that. Oh, and this:


Go see Adrift. Then stop off at your local and throw some darts.