Shailene Woodley makes a salty wench on a halyard winch in “Adrift,” a solid if unsurprisingly conventional survival at sea tale that’s for fans only.
By “fans” I mean Shailene fans, those who forgave the “Divergent” sell-out or who just picked up on this extraordinarily open actress on “Big Little Lies” on TV. The young star of “The Descendents” and “The Spectacular Now” is a polished veteran now, able to hold her own with Nicole, Laura, Zoe Kravitz and Reese Witherspoon on the melodramatic HBO soap-thriller.
What she’s done with “Adrift” is take a stab at Reese’s “Wild,” playing a young woman tested by the sea. Instead of a long hiking trail, a journal and flashbacks of her dead mother to buck her up in her hour of trial, she’s got an injured beau to complain “We’re gonna DIE out here” to, and the open Pacific to test her.
We meet Tami (Woodley) after the “knock-down.” That’s the sailing term for a wave and/or wind that broaches the boat, rolls it and tears off the mast. Yes, the other “fans” in this “fans only” affair might be old salts like myself.
The Hazana is a 40-44 foot ketch with both masts torn off, their sharp ends pounding against the hull with poor inexperienced Tami bloodied in the cabin, which is trashed and half full of water.
Richard (Sam Claflin), the experienced world-cruiser who is the love of her life and her skipper on this Tahiti to San Diego run, is nowhere to be found. Once Tami fights her way out of the cabin and takes a quick inventory of the damage, getting to Richard, who has floated away on the dinghy, is priority one. Getting them both to Hawaii with no radio, a makeship short-canvas mast, jammed rudder and no electronic navigation help is priority two.
Flashbacks show us the sweet, instant-attraction affair between the drifting traveler Tami, who odd-jobs her way from port to port, and the dashing Richard, a few years older and cruising the world in a boat he built himself.
Friends of his ask that he deliver their ketch, Hazana, to San Diego. And even though that’s where she’s from and she has no interest in returning, that’s their quest.
Where the movie by Iceland’s greatest director, Baltasar Kormakur (“Contraband,” “Everest”) lets Shailene and us down is in the personal journey she must make, the estranged mother who abandoned her, details of the life that sent her to sea, running from who knows what. Three screenwriters took a shot at giving her psychological depth and romantic heft, and Woodley is left playing that strained indulgent laugh women trot out to let you know they’re interested.
But as there’s a real Tami Oldham who tells this tale, there wasn’t much room for sexing the script up. Woodley takes care of that with endless swimsuit shots and a little nude sunbathing.
Mainly though, she dresses down and blisters up for this epic, scenes and shots of just her struggling with the boat, the sun, the sea, her personal demons and her injured boyfriend — diving to fix this, enterprising her way past drinking water and food shortages.
If you’re a yachtswoman or man, or just an armchair sailor, you know that there are scores of such narratives on bookshelves, and plenty of TV and film versions as well, including the more spiritual and more harrowing “All is Lost.”
You also know the tropes of the genre — waiting for the rain to cure a dying thirst, that first container ship that does not see your flares, spear-fishing your food supply.
It’ll be new to Woodley’s young audience, but to nobody over 30, especially no one who has a passing acquaintance with stricken sailboat stories.
Woodley’s barefoot ease on the not-quite-pitching deck is impressive, and her diving and swimming are real resume-assets. She displays a physical confidence on the water, and on the docks as Tami effortlessly comes off as shy and guileless when it suits her purposes.
But the dialogue has few moments of poetry and the call of the sea, “just you, the wind and the sound of the boat cutting through the ocean.”
Claflin, of “The Hunger Games” and “Me Before You” has an easy charm, and Woodley works the girlish giggle and body contact towards “chemistry,” but never quite sets off sparks.
Still, it’s great seeing Woodley out of YA sci-fi and into a role that makes use of her approachable reality. And truth be told, no movie with sailboats in it can be all bad. John Candy and Kurt Russell tested this maxim to the max, and they’re no Shailene Woodley.
MPAA Rating:PG-13 for injury images, peril, language, brief drug use, partial nudity and thematic elements
Cast: Shailene Woodley, Sam Claflin
Running time: 1:47