Sundance Review: Cynthia Erivo and Alia Shawkat in Anthony Chen’s ‘Drift’

Anyone who has traveled to the coastal resort areas around the world will recognize them, the obvious foreigners who spend their days approaching tourists with an assortment of trinkets to sell and are more often than not ignored or shooed away by Westerners. Very few movies have put such figures at center stage, but Drift it does that and much more by examining a young woman whose currently forlorn position in the world masks a very different kind of life than she was once accustomed to.

Tragedy and mourning are dealt with in an exceptionally sharp and insightful manner in Drift. Based on a 2013 novel by Alexander Maksik, the full title of which is A marker to measure drift, the author and his co-writer Susanne Farrell tackled a challenging narrative that many moviegoers would easily avoid, a personal tragedy of staggering magnitude. But not only the director of Singapore antonio chen He set himself an arduous task in this ambitious adaptation, he has also remarkably succeeded in making viewers see the world with very different eyes.

The film, which had its world premiere in the Premieres section of the Sundance Film Festival, operates in observation mode for the first half hour or so as we watch the curious movements of a young woman presumed to be a refugee from Africa as she moves through the throngs of tourists along a beautiful stretch of coastline in Greece. Jacqueline (Cynthia Erivo) give a massage here, earn a tip there, and soon you get the feeling that if she could make herself invisible, she would do it willingly.

But there’s something about this woman that sets her apart from the other refugees working on the beach, the first clue being her British accent, even if she speaks as few words as possible. You get the feeling that she, despite her best efforts to remain inconspicuous, is afraid of being exposed or found out in some way.

This sense of intrigue has lingered long enough when another young woman, Callie (the ever-welcome Alia Shawkat), a legitimate and sociable tour guide who leads groups around the beautiful and rugged coastal area, makes a connection with it, or at least tries to; Jacqueline is as withdrawn and quiet as she could be.

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At first discreetly, then forcefully, Jacqueline’s deep and tragic secret is revealed. Meanwhile, the two women engage in a somewhat tentative but ultimately significant relationship that finally brings to light the reason for Jacqueline’s self-exile from her life. Her story comes in fits and starts until some intense flashbacks provide the full story. Shawkat’s natural directness and joy in speaking are in ideal contrast to the constant darkness of Jacqueline’s lot in her life.

Once the dreaded secret is revealed, you begin to appreciate even more the calm and restrained way Chen and the writers have structured their retelling of this tragic tale. The circumstances and its aftermath might have induced cruder, more obvious filmmakers to heighten the melodramatic nature of the payoff, but the proportion and slightly understated approach feel just right given the mystery embedded in the more subtle approach taken.

This admirably accomplished storytelling would appeal to what was once called the art-house audience. The extent to which that still exists is questionable, but discerning viewers wherever they may be will appreciate the skill with which this slow-burn drama has been put together.

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