January 31, 2023

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‘Drift’ Review: Cynthia Erivo Anchors Stereotype-Defying Refugee Story

4 min read

At first glance, Cynthia Erivo’s Sundance play “Drift” appears to be a long line of call-to-action refugee stories, set in Europe and focused on those who leave Africa, only to encounter resistance upon their unfamiliar arrival. While On the Shore certainly has overlap with recent films like “Mediterranean” and “Fire at Sea” — which social-issue movies deserve, to be sure — “Drift” doesn’t have anything like the same agenda.

Rather than indicting European indifference, as refugee films often do, Singaporean director Anthony Chen’s moving feature uses the fictional journey of Erivo’s character, Jacqueline, as an unlikely message for healing and human connection. It’s an ambitious gamble, since Europe’s real-world migration problems are serious enough that inventing a story solely for metaphorical purposes — as co-author Alexander Maksic did in his seminal novel “A Marker to Measure Drift” — might have seemed difficult. But Erivo is such an intuitive and understated performer, and Chen so concise in his own approach, that “Drift” never feels didactic.

Erivo also produced the film, in which she plays a woman trying to make herself invisible, who instead draws attention at every turn. The mystery here is why Jacqueline seems so resistant to help. Although the characters around her genuinely want to help, Jacqueline has unspeakable trauma to work through before she can even begin to think about rejoining society. Chen doesn’t show viewers how Jacqueline got to the Greek island she’s now struggling to get to, camped out in a cave by the sea, offering tourists foot massages for a few extra euros. He took a plane, we all know (says that to a police officer in perfect English).

Fragmented throughout multiple flashbacks. He lived in London for a while, dating a white woman. The two made happy memories together. But something terrible must have happened on his way back to Liberia, which informed his reluctance to reintegrate into society. Jacqueline is bright and resourceful, observing the undocumented people around her how to earn some money according to her needs. He is scared whenever he sees a policeman and runs away when a black man offers to help.

We feel for Jacqueline, but she’s a puzzle that “Drift” doesn’t pretend it can solve. Obviously, it will take time for him to trust another person. The movie sends a promising ally – white, yes, but no savior – in the form of an American tour guide named Callie (Alia Shaukat). Both of these women are far from home, numb to what life has dealt them, and in their initial, tentative interactions there seems to be some mutual recognition. Callie first notices Jacqueline sitting among some ancient ruins and, like the site, seems to intuitively understand that this woman has some deep, unknown history about her past.

Callie is surprised to find him still there the next day, and though Jacqueline makes up stories about a husband and a hotel, it doesn’t take a genius to realize that these details are the stranger’s way of telling her she wants to be alone. Jacqueline speaks impeccable English and lets him in not as a refugee but as a tourist. It also challenges stereotypes of African immigrants presented in other films, although it will take some time for “Drift” to reveal the character’s unique backstories and circumstances. Turns out, she is the daughter of a former Liberian minister, educated in England. A home visit turns violent, and Jacqueline’s family is raped and murdered in front of her.

Chen is a humanist at heart, and though he didn’t write the movie, his sensibilities prove to be a good fit, resulting in a finer film than the material might suggest. The script, which Maxick adapted from his own novel with Suzanne Farrell, is heavy on the use of dialogue. Most of the time, we only see the character, who himself is watching the world around him cautiously, as if preparing himself for the next nasty surprise. The present-day story proves more engaging than the flashbacks, which sometimes seem implausible and a little manipulative – but they’re essential to understanding what’s really going on here.

Jacqueline has survived something so terrible, she has lost her faith in other people. His experience should qualify him for protected status in Europe, but that is not the point. What’s important here is healing, finding some way to deal with the trauma and move on — which is why the film reveals those horrors piecemeal, the way amnesiac movies slice up their pasts, so that it takes almost the whole time to get there. full picture The kindness that Callie shows, though not a magic solution, may set him on that path. We hope it will, and yet, “Drift” doesn’t provide enough to satisfy. Erivo is excellent, and yet, the film leaves to the imagination what we want from such a story: basically, everything that follows from the next to the last scene, when a soul finally finds its footing.

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