It’s likely that audiences will, by the end of this year, only be talking about Cynthia Erivo’s turn as Elphaba in Wicked: Part One — folks are already anticipating the upcoming adaptation of the iconic stage musical to be the next Barbie — but her performance in Drift doesn’t deserve to get lost in the mix. Here, she paints a tender portrait of the weight of grief and the resilience of the human spirit, reminding us why, with only less than a dozen film credits to her name, she’s already a two-time Oscar nominee. Though the same level of praise can’t be given to the film itself, Erivo’s work is so sublime that it almost makes up for it.
Directed by Anthony Chen and written by Susanne Farrell and Alexander Maksik (adapting the latter’s novel, A Marker to Measure Drift), Drift follows a Liberian refugee, Jacqueline (Erivo), as she struggles to survive on an unnamed Greek island. Homeless and virtually penniless, she spends her days going in circles: walking along the beaches and offering foot massages to the tourists for cash, sneaking onto restaurant patios for left-behind food, finding somewhere to sleep safely for the night, all while keeping the nightmares of her past at bay. One day, she meets Callie (Alia Shawkat), an American expat working as a tour guide, who might just be the saving grace she needs.
A Timely and Resonant Character Study
Release Date February 9, 2024
Director Anthony Chen
- Cynthia Erivo is fantastic in the lead role, leading to yet another profound performance.
- Drift doesn’t sensationalize Jacqueline’s story like other refugee dramas tend to do.
- A lackluster script, along with attempting to adapt the book into a relatively short film, holds Drift back.
- The central message of the film doesn’t land, and without Erivo in the lead, Drift would have been doomed to sink.
On paper, Drift has everything it needs to be a resonant, character-driven drama that speaks to where we are in the world today. From genocides and wars to collapsing democracies and failed leadership — and these are only scratching the surface of everything that has pushed the world into its “hot mess” era — the last handful of years have seen an unprecedented experience of collective grief and trauma. You need only look at the Best Picture nominees at this year’s Oscars to see how we are currently examining and processing our darkest moments.
Oppenheimer, The Zone of Interest, Killers of the Flower Moon, and Past Lives traffic in ideas about who we have become based on the actions we’ve taken (and failed to take). American Fiction and Anatomy of a Fall navigate institutional failure, while Barbie and Poor Things explore the desire to break free of convention and start anew. And The Holdovers reminds us that we are not as alone as our worst days may have us believe.
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Drift tackles all of these emotional threads and, for the most part, succeeds as an introspective drama. Chen’s stripped-down approach to Farrell and Maksik’s script feels akin to cinéma vérité, a choice that feels, at once, refreshing and appropriate. There are no cinematographic flourishes, and the color feels almost drained. Indeed, the Greek island Jacqueline finds herself on feels like a washed-out version of the paradise we are used to seeing on-screen — as faded as the powder blue shirt and denim skirt Jacqueline wears every day. Even the score is minimal and seldom pops up, which, coupled with the sparse dialogue, forces us to sit in silence with our lead and her memories (which show up in quick, violent flashbacks).
The point here isn’t to sensationalize Jacqueline or her story, nor make her a beacon of social awareness or a champion of a cause, which other refugee dramas may want to do. In fact, many social issue TV shows and films succeed in making audiences care about their subjects while the camera is rolling, but once the end credits stop, we go on with our lives as normal. No, Drift doesn’t allow us to be “entertained” by Jacqueline’s story: the circumstances that forced her to flee Liberia have scarred her, and, as a result, the film takes great care in making sure we feel her pain.
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How We Take Care of Each Other
Drift truly shines in moments when Erivo and Shawkat are on-screen together. Shawkat turns in a magnetic performance as Callie; the film feels especially bright whenever she enters a scene. She, too, struggles with the weight of her past and, like Jacqueline, is a stranger to a land she’s trying to call home. That’s perhaps why, of the dozens of people Jacqueline passes by or interacts with every day, Callie is the only one who can really see she’s in need of help. Moreover, Callie brings out a different side of Jacqueline that adds a much-needed dimension to the film.
Indeed, much of why Drift struggles to stay afloat boils down to a shaky script that tries to whittle down Maksik’s epic novel into a 90-minute drama. Farrell and Maksik are evidently alchemists when it comes to the interactions between Jacqueline and Callie, who toe the line between friendship, romance, sisterhood, and something else that’s ineffable but instantly recognizable by those who know what it means to care for someone. However, when Jacqueline’s walls inevitably crumble, the puzzle pieces of her past and those of her present relationship with Callie don’t always fit seamlessly.
There’s an important message about community being telegraphed here, but the story doesn’t spare enough time for it to really land. It’s hard to imagine Drift working with anyone else but Erivo in the lead. She is the ultimate draw of this film; she is the one who carries it — and, by extension, us — safely to shore.
Utopia releases Drift in New York on Feb. 9 and in Los Angeles on Feb. 16, followed by a national expansion on Feb. 23. Watch the trailer below.
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