There are few shots in “Drift” which don’t feature Cynthia Erivo’s Jacqueline — a Liberian woman educated in England, who ends up stranded in Greece — and the film is all the better for it. The third feature by Singaporean director Anthony Chen (“Ilo Ilo”), from a script by Susanne Farrell and Alexander Maksik (the latter of whom wrote the novel on which it was based), the movie skillfully bides its time over 90 minutes before revealing anything at all about its protagonist, or how she ended up wandering a tourist destination, like a spirit without purpose. By tethering itself to Erivo’s layered performance, as a woman who carries the weight of her past on her shoulders, “Drift” seldom needs to provide clear answers in order to be devastatingly effective.
Jacqueline appears to be a refugee for all intents and purposes, though her English accent makes it slightly easier for her to pass as a tourist, which comes in handy when sneaking into outdoor restaurants and cafes to quietly nab discarded morsels. She also intentionally keeps her distance from other African migrants (even those who try to help her), though what seems initially like denial about her circumstances eventually turns out to be much more complicated.
We don’t learn the specifics of how Jacqueline ended up on a Greek Island — or whether this destination was even in her control — nor does the movie ever contextualize what it would take for her to leave. For Jacqueline, wandering the shoreline and offering massages to Europeans for a few Euro at a time is a way to make ends meet, but the remove at which Chen and cinematographer Crystel Fournier shoot this repeated ritual makes it seem almost Sisyphean, as if some major event in her life has led her to a self-imposed exile.
Erivo, in turn, crafts a performance so nuanced that one can’t avoid feeling the enormity of her mysterious past. We see snippets along the way, as she recalls moments of love, both familial and romantic, with various women in her life. But the brevity with which these scenes appear, before cutting back to Erivo’s weary eyes in the present, offer the sense that, for whatever reason, Jacqueline cannot (or will not) sit and ponder these memories for too long. She has flowing, healthy locs in these flashbacks, and a zest for life. In the present, her buzz cut, her hunched-over posture, and her makeshift cave dwelling on the shoreside, make her feel distinctly ascetic, as if she somehow belongs in this realm of physical and emotional isolation.
The first time we see this change is, perhaps fittingly, at the site of an ancient ruin — a place where life once thrived, long in the past — when she chances upon Callie (Alia Shawkat), a lively American tour guide with whom she hits things off. Jacqueline concocts a story about waiting there for her husband, and though Callie finds Jacqueline at the same spot day after day, wearing the same clothes, she doesn’t question her. Perhaps Callie is being polite, or perhaps she recognizes something within Jacqueline, some unspoken reason that might cause her to exist, intentionally or otherwise, in a defeating cycle of repetition that may be more comfortable than actually living life.
Callie, it’s revealed, has her own sorrows which led her to end up in Greece, so the two women bond on a spiritual level, despite neither one speaking their pain in words (at least at first). The specter of Jacqueline’s truth looms over their fun strolls through the lush environment, but it doesn’t dampen their intimate walks or make them any less pleasant. Jacqueline isn’t a very good liar — whatever troubles her frequently rises to the surface, and Erivo works hard to keep it barely-concealed — but Callie doesn’t mind. In “Drift,” people’s secrets are their own, but when and how they’re unraveled may not always be their choice.
Films about trauma are a dime-a-dozen in popular media, though their concern is often reckoning with these traumas in digestible ways in order to leave them behind. “Drift,” on the other hand, sits uncomfortably with the past, allowing its effects to linger in ways that may not be so easy to fight off. In the process, it becomes an excavation of the way Jacqueline carries the past with her, and the way it erupts from within, seeping into every aspect of her present from the way she navigates the world to the way her it rankles her, even in moments of comfort, taking the most inexplicable and irrational forms.
Erivo’s full-bodied commitment to the role, capturing how even the worst experiences can become a part of you, results in a performance so powerful that it’s occasionally too difficult to watch. And yet, Chen’s deft eye for the ebb and flow of recognizable human drama prevents you from ever looking away.
“Drift” premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.
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