‘Drift’ Review: Cynthia Erivo’s Commanding Turn Bolsters Low-Key Refugee Drama

Sundance 2023: The film’s second half leans toward the tidy and cathartic, but Erivo’s performance remains unwaveringly riveting

Sundance Institute

We know the traumatized need the sense of safety to properly heal. But does art about trauma benefit from feeling safe?

That’s the nagging question that comes close to undermining the effect of “Drift,” the title referring to the unmoored state of mind in a homeless survivor of war-ravaged Liberia wandering the coastal edges of a blithely touristy Greece. Her portrayer Cynthia Erivo, however, is only ever a magnetic anchor in “Ilo Ilo” filmmaker Anthony Chen’s quietly compassionate if ultimately predictable drama.

Adapted from the 2013 novel “A Marker to Measure Drift” by Alexander Maksik (also a credited co-screenwriter with Susanne Farrell), the film follows refugee Jacqueline (Erivo), who in the beginning we see cadging food (or just sugar packets) from vacated tables at restaurants, staring at the rippling sea for long stretches and sleeping in a cave on a makeshift mattress made from plastic bags of sand. As if Jacqueline were a fragile specimen, cinematographer Crystel Fournier’s camera treats her with a just-distanced-enough respect but is near enough to locate the hardness and hauntedness in her features.

With her shorn hair, unassuming denim skirt, grey t-shirt and sandals, Jacqueline avoids people, but men seem to spark her flight instinct the most, in particular the only one in the area who shares her skin color and continent of origin: a friendly migrant peddler who calls her “sister” but to no avail. We sense a clue there to her past torment. Another is the careful rigor with which she routinely washes her underwear.

And then, when she needs to speak, there’s her refined English accent, a sign that whatever happened to her under Charles Taylor’s cruel reign, she was from a privileged class, and that her apartness from the moneyed European vacationers in her orbit — whose help she could readily appeal to when she’s massaging their feet for a few Euros — is partly deliberate.

Shards of memory in the flashback-dependent script start filling us in on her previous existence: first from what appears to be a sexy, romantic life in London with well-heeled girlfriend Helen (Honor Swinton Byrne, “The Souvenir”), then chronologically when she travels to Liberia to spend time at her family home, where her pregnant sister (Suzy Bemba) looks happy, her government-minister father (Vincent Vermignon) glowers, mom (Zainab Jah) is glad she lives in the UK, and security prowl the grounds with guns.

When Chen centers on Jacqueline’s limbo in the first third, painting the sunshine and moonlight of her self-enforced isolation in a travelers’ paradise with tactile sensitivity and psychological suspense — Erivo physicalizing it as if she were in a silent film — “Drift” has its own unsettling hum. That gives way to the more dramatically clear-cut, however, the moment Alia Shawkat’s friendly American tour guide Callie appears as the stranger able to draw Jacqueline out with unforced sympathy and a little humor. That’s when we realize the filmmakers will be less Claire Denis–esque with the churning energies about place, culture, and interiority, and more geared toward something conventionally therapeutic.

Jacqueline and Callie have some nice, believably warm exchanges — two smart women joking about tourists, referencing Isadora Duncan, and feeling out each other’s loneliness. Chen doesn’t pretend these strangers are altering each other forever, which helps, and Erivo shrewdly keeps dread as a top note.

But once the movie lets on that we’re headed toward a cathartic reveal merging flashback past and monologue present, “Drift” feels, ironically, a little less immediate and powerful about the mysteries of trauma — especially as it pertains to someone whose experience is a cauldron of race, class, nationality and womanhood — and more like any other movie determined to square audience expectations about how to unlock broken lives. That’s not to say things aren’t affecting, but the way it all resolves feels narratively short-sighted.

Erivo, though, is very much in tune with the complexities in her characterization of a living ghost hesitantly reacquainting herself with the corporeal and coming to grips with the memories that torment. There’s heartbreak in her every moment of nervous self-control. It’s a performance that is commanding enough to carry “Drift” from its simultaneously edgy and low-key first half through its shakier engagement with hope and connection in the second.

“Drift” makes its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.