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ADRIFT: Woodley and Claflin alone in the Pacific

“Adrift” confirms how compelling a simple story can be if it’s handled with sufficient care and skill.

In this case, that skill-set includes thoughtful editing, solid performances and bone-rattling realism.

Shailene Woodley and Sam Claflin play real-life couple Tami Oldham Ashcraft and Richard Sharp, who in 1983 undertook to sail 4,000 miles from Tahiti to San Diego -- only to get caught in a catastrophic hurricane.

The film gets off to a slam-bang start in the midst of disaster, with Tami recovering consciousness in the cabin of a wrecked and sinking boat. Struggling on deck, she can find no sign of Richard -- not even after scanning the horizon with binoculars; the harness to which he was strapped has nothing on it but a hook.

Without further elaboration, “Adrift” then hops back several months to introduce Tami, a free spirit traveling wherever the wind takes her. Editor John Gilbert, who won an Oscar for his work on “Hacksaw Ridge,” subsequently alternates between this earlier timeline -- with Tami meeting and falling for Richard, then agreeing to sail with him across the Pacific -- and the later struggle for survival on a decimated vessel with little food and water and no proximity to flight paths or shipping lanes.

Since “Adrift” takes a sober, factual approach, it was a relief to enjoy the film without trying to second-guess some typical unrealistic embellishment; that is, I simply turned off the knee-jerk response that kept thinking, “OK, now there’s going to be a shark,” or “Now her rope is going to break.”

Authenticity is heightened by gut-wrenching practical effects in scene after scene. It’s clear that director Baltasar Kormakur filmed most of this on the actual ocean (rather than in a studio or tank); that the two stars really did learn how to sail; and that they both got banged around with punishing stunt-work. In one or two scenes I heard others in the audience groaning along with me -- especially when the boat finally capsizes with Tami inside.

Woodley, a fiercely talented actress who burned up the screen in “The Descendants” and “Fault in Our Stars,” brings plenty of anguish, guts and fortitude to her role, though Tami’s character is not especially well written. Claflin (“Me Before You,” “Hunger Games: Catching Fire”) has a million-watt smile and charisma oozing from every pore; it’s easy to see why the independent Ashcraft decides to cast her lot with him.

The movie is scary, gripping, often-tender and ultimately hopeful despite its grief and suffering.

Truth to tell, though, for all its authenticity, there is one substantial storyline embellishment about which I will only say that it’s brilliantly effective -- but I won’t even hint at what finally happened in this incredible odyssey; you’ll just have to read up on the actual event yourself.

But see the movie first.


directed by Baltasar Kormakur

Run time: 96 min.

* * * (out of four)

Rated PG-13 for injury images, peril, language, brief drug use, partial nudity and thematic elements

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