Sundance 2023: Drift Review
There’s a way that Anthony Chen’s English-language directorial debut, Drift, fractures its narrative that surprisingly works in its favor. Kept at arm’s length, its protagonist always feels misjudged by both the audience and herself. As the pieces of the puzzle start coalescing and the backstory of Jacqueline (Cynthia Erivo) comes closer into focus, Drift delivers a potent character study on the refugee experience – almost despite its predictable plotting and the unavailable emotions of its main character. It’s a complex story about trust and how a single traumatic event can rupture the ability to return to the way things once were.
Adapted from Alexander Maksik’s second novel, A Marker to Measure Drift, by Maksik and Susanne Farrell, Drift has a sturdy foundation from which to work. Maksik and Farrell’s screenplay takes a bold route by playing its central character’s past in flashbacks interspersed throughout her interactions with people on the Greek island she temporarily calls home. It’s a choice that works in most respects but also emphasizes Jacqueline’s (Erivo) past, which winds up feeling a little manipulative due to its obvious foreshadowing of a shift from the idyllic to the painful.
A refugee from Liberia, Jacqueline’s life before subsiding in Greece was one of wealth and comfort. She had a best friend, and while she lived within a safe bubble, it was always teetering on bursting due to Liberia’s war-torn landscape. When introduced to the audience, she’s alone, desolate, and scrounging for food and money. Her solitude and homelessness are initially presented as decisions made by herself. She is offered a helping hand multiple times but rarely accepts. Whether it’s stubbornness or something else is what makes Chen’s film emotionally resonant and where the screenplay’s decision to split the chronology works in its favor.
Drift begins coming into its own when a chance encounter between Jacqueline and an American tour guide, Callie (Alia Shawkat), begins spurring on the recollection of Jacqueline’s memories. The chemistry between Callie and Jacqueline is immediate. Callie’s curiosity about Jacqueline and subsequent determination to find out the truth about her drives the plot forward while amplifying their emotional bond. Jacqueline’s steady mistrust of anyone challenges Callie’s empathy, still reeling from her recent trauma and the wounds they’ve caused both internally and externally. Watching Callie attempt to bridge that gap speaks volumes about how human connection can compel people to maintain an outstretched helping hand.
The screenplay is on the shoulders of the two incredibly nuanced performances from Erivo and Shawkat. The scenes they share are endearing and potent. As Drift steers closer to the pain of its protagonist, the two actors descend upon the material with a tender curiosity for their subjects and envelop their respective pain and heartache. Erivo consistently delivers in meaty dramatic roles such as this, but what’s most surprising is how well Shawkat’s performance feels lived in and meets Erivo on equal footing – albeit with a much more subdued range.
The eventual meeting point of Jacqueline’s past in Liberia and her present isolation recontextualizes how Jacqueline behaves throughout Chen’s film. It’s a clear origin of Jacqueline’s pain that is a tad too predictable to resonate and might have been better off not included at all – or at least to a significantly lesser extent. Erivo does a fantastic job conveying someone emotionally scarred who is walling herself off from society. It is somewhat shocking how much narrative is still presented in the flashbacks, especially when the most compelling dynamic is between Callie and Jacqueline. It might be a case of playing it safe during the filming, but somewhere in the editing process, there’s a more subtle and delicately told story of the hold pain has on refugees.
Despite its hiccups narratively, Drift is still an effective and profound character study that manages to dig deep, thanks to its tremendous performances. Chen’s direction is steady but light, leaving the bulk of the film’s power in Erivo and Shawkat’s hands as they explore their characters’ relationship with one another. Heartbreaking and sincere in its depiction of life after unspeakable pain, Drift settles into a satisfying conclusion that reiterates the strengths of its actors and the endearing chemistry between their characters.