At a glance, there’s ample reason why the ocean-survival film “Adrift” should work as gripping drama. This account of a young American woman’s six-week ordeal struggling to cross the South Pacific in a storm-crippled sailboat comes with scenes of heroic resourcefulness and digitally maximized high-seas peril.
The director is Baltasar Kormákur, who did underrated work balancing nature’s cruelty with credibly played humanity in the mountaineering disaster chronicle “Everest.” And the movie stars Shailene Woodley, who firmly established her knack for interchangeably conveying grace and flinty resilience in the “Divergent” series. (It remains a disappointment that the dystopian franchise squandered what it had in Woodley by losing its way and winding up in studio limbo.)
Unfortunately, despite the filmmakers’ clear, creative effort to structure their tale dynamically, the constraints of keeping this true story truthful ultimately make effective pacing a near impossible challenge. Unlike, say, Robert Redford’s similarly themed, more narratively compelling “All Is Lost” (2013), “Adrift” is hamstrung by the recurring monotony of its circumstance. Try as he might, Kormákur simply can’t get around the fact that his haggard, despairing subject spends all that time at sea with a whole lotta nothing going on.
It’s 1983 and sun-kissed, twentysomething wanderer Tami Oldham (Woodley) is sojourning in Tahiti, doing some light work for hire down at the pier until the ocean breeze carries her to her next unplanned stop. There she meets handsome Englishman Richard Sharp (Sam Claflin, “The Hunger Games”), a kindred spirit exploring paradise in a self-built boat, and despite his own foreshadow-y talk about the rigors of life on the water being “not fun.”
Scenes alternate between Tami and Richard’s idyllic tropical courtship and the trans-Pacific sailboat delivery gig that eventually drops them into a hurricane, leaving mast and bones catastrophically shattered. And while the movie does open with a fast-forward glimpse of the episode’s immediate aftermath, it’s telling that the storm itself is held back for the climax — tacit acknowledgment that the story needs something to build toward, because our increasingly exhausted heroine’s interminable, rudderless search for shore can’t really provide it.
As he did with his “Everest” cast, Kormákur draws a strong, pathos-rich performance from Woodley, filled with moments of her character confronting her own mortality and looking back on safe choices not made. It’s solid drama, but also very slow going.
Directed by Baltasar Kormákur. Written by Aaron Kandell, Jordan Kandell, and David Branson Smith. Starring Shailene Woodley, Sam Claflin. At Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs. 96 minutes. PG-13 (injury images, peril, language, brief drug use, partial nudity, thematic elements).Tom Russo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.