It has taken 35 years for Tami Oldham’s compelling survival-at-sea story to make it to the movies, but as I say in my video review (click the link above to watch), it was worth the wait. Sure we have seen similar kinds of stories like this, where one person must face the odds alone against Mother Nature, but when it is well done, as this one is, it is worth taking the voyage.

At 23, Tami (Shailene Woodley) gets the opportunity to sail a yacht from Tahiti to California with her boyfriend Richard Sharp (Sam Claflin), but the vessel rides directly into the eye of a horrendous hurricane and she must find a way for her and the injured and virtually immobile Sharp to survive against all odds alone at sea on a crippled boat. Oldham’s memoir has been brought to the screen in high dramatic fashion by director Baltasar Kormakur (Everest, Two Guns), who lets his heavy-action-movie past subside to tell the story as largely a romantic drama set against the unpredictability of nature. It is tough to pull this kind of thing off since in real life their boat drifted for 41 days and that can get kind of monotonous. A key story device involving the injured boyfriend helps, but Kormakur and screenwriters Aaron Kendall, Jordan Kendall and David Branson Smith also find to way to weave in and out of flashbacks in a structure that not only fills in the details of the romantic relationship that flowers in Tahiti but also in leading up to their catastrophe on the open water. The film is able to build suspense based on anticipation of what will happen even after initially opening with the aftermath of the storm, which then leads into the first of the flashbacks. A couple of unexpected twists help enormously.

It also is admirable that the director ruled out shooting the many water sequences in a tank, filming instead on real open-water locations off Fiji and New Zealand. He has much experience and fondness for these kinds of stories, especially a previous sea-survivor film, The Deep, which became Iceland’s Oscar entry in 2012. Clearly he loves putting his actors through the ringer.

With that in mind we can be thankful it has Woodley throwing herself hook, line and sinker into perhaps her most challenging role yet and emerging triumphant. Yes, the romantic angle between her and Claflin smacks of the kind of thing YA novels thrive on. But this is no YA story — rather it’s one of courage, fortitude and the will to survive. It takes awhile to get fully to that point, but when it sinks in, Woodley is there to guide us all the way. As Tami, she is a young woman who grew up with a love and special knack for navigating uncharted waters, and Woodley captures that passion effortlessly. Claflin’s character, who gets severely injured during the hurricane, has far less to do in driving the action, but he’s clearly there for eye candy for the large female audience this film is aimed at.

Adrift has been gorgeously photographed by the great cinematographer Robert Richardson, and his experience shows every step of the way. The CGI’d hurricane also is impressively done but is saved largely until the end. This is more a character study of a woman fighting nature and using everything she has in her to do it. Producers are Kormakur, the Kandell brothers, Woodley and Ralph Winter. STX releases it today.

Do you plan to see Adrift? Let us know what you think.