Adrift gets away with its goofy twist ending, I suppose, by virtue of that ending actually being based in reality. I can only assume the details of what happened to the real-life Tami Oldham, lost at sea for forty-one days with minimal supplies or navigational training, must include the details that come to light in the film’s final minutes. Otherwise, it’s one of the more ridiculous uses of a certain standard genre trope that allows the audience to feel what it’s like to slowly lose your mind in isolation before pulling the rug out and revealing that things were getting even weirder than you thought a lot faster than you thought.
The film still works and, if that’s how Oldham tells her own story (the film is based on her own book about her experiences), then that’s fine. Because that ending is still earned, with the preceding ninety minutes all leading more or less to the same conclusion with or without that narrative crutch. And it works mostly because of the commitment of its two leads, in particular Shailene Woodley (who also produced) turning in her best performance to date. It’s certainly light-years beyond anything she was ever asked to do in the staggeringly bad Divergent films for which she’s probably best known. Sam Claflin is also good here. I’m pretty sure I’ve only ever been annoyed at best by his mere presence in films, but with Adrift demanding little more of him than to be at times either charming or injured, he does just fine.
Opening in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Raymond in 1983, the film flashes back and forth in time telling parallel stories. In the first, Tami Oldham and her fiance, Richard (Claflin), find themselves completely off course and lost in the Pacific on a small yacht, having to navigate back to safety with only a sextant, peanut butter and sardines keeping them alive. In the second, we see them meet, fall in love, and eventually head toward their fateful journey from Tahiti to San Diego before running into the storm. It’s thanks to the leads that the two halves of the story work as well as they do, shifting around in time to give a full enough picture of who these two were before the life-altering disaster strikes.
With Claflin laid out for most of the film’s runtime, it’s all on Woodley’s shoulders to take us pretty much from the beginning to the end. And while the narrative is a little jumbled at times — some of those cuts from past to present are a little jarring but, given the ending, that’s probably by design — there’s actually not much to the story. They meet, fall in love and get lost at sea. That’s pretty much it.
But Adrift effectively puts you inside the situation, feeling that loneliness and despair while filling you in on why any of this should matter to you. It’s a good, simple trick. And the biggest surprise is that now I’m excited to see another Shailene Woodley movie. Weird, huh?