How you experience Adrift depends greatly on whether or not you catch the first minute of the film. For the first shot opens on a man's lifeless body sinking deep into the darkest depths of the ocean – surely he is beyond saving, if he's even still alive. The camera then rises up into the interior of a luxury sailboat, filled with water and sinking. An unconscious woman wakes up, takes in her surroundings, then climbs up to the deck and calls out "Richard! Richard!" The next shot reveals that the sailboat, rendered immobile after a tropical storm, is in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, far from shore, far from anything.
We then cut back in time, five months earlier, as the woman, Tami (Shailene Woodley), arrives on Tahiti with no plans but to hang out. Soon after, she meets cute with a British sailor named Richard (Sam Claflin), presumably the lifeless man we saw in the opening shot. Several minutes later, as their romance starts to blossom, a jarring cut sends us back to Tami on their waterlogged boat, desperately trying to locate Richard. Impossibly, she spots him hanging for dear life on the sailboat's dinghy, a couple hundred yards away. So was that Richard we saw as the film began, or someone else?
The mystery doesn't take that long to solve itself, though the film makes us wait patiently until the end to sort it all out. In the meantime, Adrift is an engaging and often exciting portrait of survival, although unlike the many other survival movies that have come out in the last few years – see links below – this film is much more of a love story. It's also a true story, as an early title informs us, which leads us to believe that at least one of these two people will make it home safely to tell the tale.
Although Claflin is fine, the film wholeheartedly belongs to Woodley, who is also credited as a producer. The part of Tami is perfect for her, free spirit as the actress apparently is. Woodley is always likable, and if you'll pardon the pun, her personality keeps the film afloat even during the occasional corny and/or morose sequence. She not only makes Tami thoroughly real, she convinces us that Richard was the love of her life. It's a touching performance in a highly accomplished film. Thalassophobes beware; others should enjoy.