‘Drift’ Review: A subdued drama led by a powerful Cynthia Erivo

Sundance: Anthony Chen’s opulent Greece-set feature explores how the past can seep into your bones.

There are few shots in Drift that don’t feature Cynthia Erivo’s Jacqueline – an English-educated Liberian stranded in Greece – and the film is all the better for it. Singaporean director Anthony Chen’s (“Ilo Ilo”) third feature film from a screenplay by Susanne Farrell and Alexander Maksik (the latter of whom wrote the novel it’s based on), the film expertly waits over 90 minutes before revealing anything about her protagonist or how she ended up wandering through a tourist destination like an aimless ghost. Tying into Erivo’s multi-layered performance, “Drift” as a woman carrying the weight of her past on her shoulders, rarely needs to provide straight answers to be dazzlingly effective.

Jacqueline appears to be a refugee in every sense, although her English accent makes it a bit easier for her to pass for a tourist, which comes in handy when sneaking into outdoor restaurants and cafes to quietly grab discarded morsels. She also deliberately keeps her distance from other African migrants (even those who try to help her), but what at first seems like a denial of her circumstances turns out to be much more complicated.

We don’t get the details of how Jacqueline ended up on a Greek island — or if that destination was even within her control — nor does the film ever put into context what it would take for her to leave. For Jacqueline, it’s a way to stray across the river and offer massages to Europeans for a few bucks each, but the distance at which Chen and cinematographer Crystel Fournier film this repeated ritual makes it almost Sisyphean as if it were a Major An event in her life has led her into self-imposed exile.

Erivo, in turn, crafts a performance so nuanced you can’t help but feel the enormity of her mysterious past. We see snippets along the way as she recalls moments of love, both family and romantic, with various women in her life. But the brevity with which these scenes appear, before falling back on Erivo’s weary eyes in the present, gives the impression that for whatever reason, Jacqueline can’t (or won’t) sit long and contemplate these memories. She has flowing, wholesome features in those flashbacks and joie de vivre. In the present, her cropped haircut, stooped posture, and makeshift cave dwelling on the shore make her feel decidedly ascetic, as if somehow she belongs in that realm of physical and emotional isolation.

The first time we see this shift is, perhaps fittingly, at the site of an ancient ruin – a place where life once thrived long ago – when she chances upon Callie (Alia Shawkat), a feisty American tour guide , who she’s dating, knocks things off. Jacqueline invents a story about how she is waiting for her husband there, and although Callie finds Jacqueline in the same place day after day, in the same clothes, she doesn’t ask her any questions. Maybe Callie is being polite, or maybe she sees something in Jacqueline, an unspoken reason that could lead to her intentionally or not existing in a devastating cycle of repetition that can be more comfortable than actually living life.

Callie, it turns out, has her own troubles that led to her ending up in Greece, so the two women bond on a spiritual level, though neither of them puts their pain into words (at least initially). The specter of Jacqueline’s truth hovers over her fun strolls through the lush surroundings, but it doesn’t dampen her intimate strolls or make them any less enjoyable. Jacqueline isn’t a very good liar – whatever’s troubling her often surfaces, and Erivo works hard to barely hide it – but Callie doesn’t mind. In Drift, people’s secrets are their own, but when and how they are revealed isn’t always their choice.

Films about trauma are a dozen in popular media, although their concern is often to reckon with that trauma in a digestible way, to move on from it. “Drift,” on the other hand, sits uncomfortably in the past, allowing its effects to linger in a way that may not be so easily deflected. In doing so, it becomes an excavation of the way Jacqueline carries the past and how she breaks out from within and penetrates every aspect of her present, from the way she navigates the world to the Way she annoys her, even in her moments of consolation that take the most inexplicable and irrational forms.

Erivo’s full-bodied commitment to the role, capturing how even the worst of experiences can become a part of you, results in a performance so powerful it’s at times too difficult to watch. And yet Chen’s adept eye for the ebb and flow of recognizable human drama keeps you from ever looking away.

Grade: B+

“Drift” premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival and is currently seeking distribution.

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https://www.indiewire.com/2023/01/drift-review-cynthia-erivo-1234802486/ ‘Drift’ Review: A subdued drama led by a powerful Cynthia Erivo

Lindsay Lowe

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