Adrift Testifies to the Strength of the Human Spirit

The intensity ratchets up somewhat late in the survival movie Adrift, a largely true account of 24-year-old Tami Oldham’s 41 harrowing days stranded at sea. The magnitude of Oldham’s (now Tami Oldham Ashcraft’s) accomplishment is a testimony to the strength of the human spirit when facing seemingly impossible odds. This story is told well in Adrift although the intensity of the film might challenge those who have actually experienced trauma in the outdoors or in isolation.

Icelandic director Baltasar Kormakur is no stranger to the survival genre, having directed the 2015 blockbuster Everest. In Adrift, he has chosen a more intimate approach to filming. The vast majority of the movie takes place in or on the water, most of it on sailboats. The story is also tightly focused on Tami Oldham (Shailene Woodley, The Fault of Our Stars, the Divergent series) and her fiance Richard Sharp (Sam Caflan, The Hunger Games series, Their Finest, My Cousin Rachel). The effect is to magnify the trauma and the hurdles they face to survive.

Based on the Ashcraft’s book, Red Sky in Mourning: A True Story of Love, Loss, and Survival at Sea, Sharp and Oldham meet each other in Tahiti. They are wandering the world, separately, in search of something. After a chance meeting, they fall in love and start sailing together on Sharp’s sailboat.

Several months into their relationship, a friend asks Sharp to sail his44-foot yacht (a two-masted ketch) back to San Diego. He agrees. Three weeks into their trip across the Pacific, they run smack into the 145 mph winds and forty foot waves of Hurricane Raymond (which eventually made landfall in Baja, California) after it unexpectedly changes course.

While the movie has been billed as a romance, and it is, the focus never strays from the tragic aftermath of their run-in with the hurricane. In fact, the opening scene features Oldham regaining consciousness in their sinking sailboat, and the story’s forward momentum and pace is rooted in this frame. The romance is told in flashbacks, carefully timed to shadow nature’s ruthless test of Oldham’s spirit and character. Woodley turns in an excellent performance as a woman with little initial practical knowledge beyond island hopping recreational sailing and forced into an unimaginable struggle to live. She totters between despair, resolve, and determination as Oldham struggles to keep the boat afloat and seaworthy enough to get them back to land.

Adrift’s pace is slow and somewhat methodical. While this choice slows the action, Kormaku’s well-orchestrated storytelling magnifies the impact of an important twist and turning point for Oldham in her drive to survive.

Tami Oldham’s story is an important one if for no other reason it provides real-life testimony to the importance of character, courage, perseverance, and grit. The human spirit is capable of overcoming incredible stress and trauma, vindicating one of the most human of human traits: hope.


Sam Staley is a Research Fellow and film critic at the Independent Institute, and a contributing author to the Independent books, Property Rights: Eminent Domain and Regulatory Takings Re-Examined and Housing America: Building Out of a Crisis.

Samuel R. Staley is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and Managing Director of the DeVoe L. Moore Center in the College of Social Sciences at Florida State University. He is a contributing author to the Independent books, Property Rights: Eminent Domain and Regulatory Takings Re-Examined and Housing America: Building Out of a Crisis.
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