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Can Jennifer Lawrence’s mini-me buoy this true-life disaster tale?

By T.T. Stern-Enzi

Tom Hanks and Robert Redford anchored films (“Cast Away” and “All Is Lost” respectively) where they had to shoulder the narrative burden on their own. Hanks did so with his quintessential good humor, while Redford with his rugged stoicism. Quite often, I imagine Redford to be off on his own, even in the midst of a crowd. There is something self-contained about him; a confidence that speaks to the idea that he keeps and appreciates his own counsel about all others.

To a certain extent, Shailene Woodley wades into similar waters with “Adrift.” She’s aided by director Balthasar Kormákur (“Everest”) who has proven to be more than adept at fashioning grippingly visceral moving images of people caught in epic struggles against the soul-crushing forces of nature. Having shown us the dangerous majesty of snow-covered mountains, this time Kormákur decides to capture the lethal capacity of wind and water.

Yet, he does so with an ace of sorts up his sleeve; pitting these elements against the irresistible power of romance. Tami Oldham (Woodley), a roving, somewhat wind-swept spirit winds up face-to-face with Richard Sharp (Sam Claflin), a fellow adventurer, sailing the seas and oceans. Neither is quite sure what they are searching for, but when they find one another, each immediately latches onto the other. It’s not hard to see why. Forget the notion that opposites attract. Beauty seeks its own reflection, and in these two, we get a match made in movie heaven. Woodley and Claflin don’t quite project the kind of otherworldly charisma that defies definition; instead, the two offer a relatable handsomeness that puts a smile on the faces of those who encounter them.

Woodley, in particular, has an easy slacker vibe, that pegs her as Jennifer Lawrence’s younger free-spirited sibling in the Hollywood firmament. She’s not quite interested in being the girl on fire (there’s probably too much work in that gig). Woodley has been content to pursue the divergent path of least resistance, hanging on the fringes with say, frequent co-star Miles Teller (the “Divergent” series, “The Spectacular Now”) rather than pursuing the higher-profile roles with directors like David O. Russell and Darren Aronofsky that could land awards season glory or comic book franchise works that lead to multi-picture contracts and
premium paychecks.

There’s no fault in Woodley’s choice though or her results. She’s got a pair of Golden Globe nominations (Best Supporting Actress for both “The Descendants” and “Big Little Lies”) and time would appear to be on her side.

Maybe, there’s a lesson in her taking this role in “Adrift.” Tami finds herself in a home situation in San Diego that she needs to escape, which triggers her wandering. Her approach is “anywhere but here.” She bounces around, picking up random skills that will ensure she can survive in any environment. In some ways, Tami is a chameleon, a Jack (or Jane) of all trades. In another, Tami’s akin to an actress, one like Woodley, who can slip into any role.

We’re asked to believe Tami could sail to various international ports in the mid-1980s, working random gigs along the way, and stumble through more than a few incredible spots, making thrilling choices, for the hell of it. Not far off from what Woodley has done, right? And both, it seems, enjoyed the ride thus far.

Things take a different turn for Tami though, when she and Richard, in the full bloom of new love, decide to sail a luxury yacht to the States (San Diego, no less) on commission, and encounter a freak storm. The narrative zig zags back and forth, between the early stages of Tami and Richard’s relationship (which feels effortless) and the harsh reality of the immediate aftermath of the storm. This is the one example of the horrific danger that lurks for those who live on the edge. Of course, it all leads back to Tami’s various experiences being the difference maker. She leans on her skills
and her wits.

Woodley does the same and she carries us along for the ride. I, for one, wasn’t interested in going on this kind of journey with her. I understood the veracity that Kormákur would bring to the affair, but after “All Is Lost,” I didn’t need another seafaring adventure with seemingly no way out. But Woodley held my sympathy during much of the aimlessness. As the days drug on, and the time-jumps extended with no discernable rhyme or reason, I ended up clinging, somewhat desperately to her version of Tami Oldham, the real-life figure whose experiences form the basis of the narrative (and whose book serves as the foundation for the adaptation).

I have to say though, I think it’s time for Woodley to start correcting her course a bit. No one wants to lose their way in Hollywood for too long.

Rating: PG-13

Grade: C+