The incoming tide dissolves a pair of solitary footprints in the sand in just seconds. And for Jacqueline (Cynthia Erivo) it represents how quickly, almost imperceptibly, life can change. In Drift, his first film in the English language, director Anthony Chen uses her story to examine something that’s rarely out of the headlines, but about which we still know comparatively little. The refugee experience.
The daughter of a wealthy government politician in Liberia, Jacqueline struggles to survive on a Greek island, keeping body and soul together by giving foot massages to tourists on the beach, stealing food and finding shelter in caves and abandoned buildings. Haunted by the memories of how she was driven from her country, she cuts an isolated figure but a meeting with Callie (Alia Shawkat), an American tour guide, leads her to confront her fears and tentatively look to the future again.
Chen paints a picture of the Greek islands that’s familiar to anybody who’s been there or many other beach holiday destinations. Refugees, often African, scratch a living selling trinkets at the roadside and live rough near resorts and their hotels. Jacqueline, on the other hand, is very much on her own, deliberately avoiding the company of other Africans and keeping very much to herself. The locals definitely don’t want to know her and it’s only a handful of women tourists who pay for her foot massages. While there’s nothing about this picture that feels disingenuous, it’s also a very conventional portrayal, a familiar one that comes close to cliché.
But as a character portrait the film is in another league, thanks to the combination of Erivo’s subtle, heartfelt performance and a script full of empathy and delicacy. There are times when it’s also light on dialogue, allowing both Erivo and Shawkat, who puts in a breezy turn, to stretch their respective skills as performers. Jacqueline’s story unfolds over a series of flashbacks – a relationship with a wealthy English student, her return to Liberia where she witnesses the brutal murder of her family – memories that torment her at night and which eventually spill out into the open, marking the start of what will be a slow recovery from her trauma.
The film takes its time in unfurling its story, focusing on the rugged beauty of the Greek island and contrasting the affluence of the mainly white holiday makers with the gruelling lives of the refugees and their treatment at the hands of the local police. But so captivating is Erivo, that the sometimes over-leisurely pacing fades into the background as we walk alongside her, hoping she finds the personal peace she so deserves.
Drama | Sundance Film Festival, premiered on 22 January 2023 | Dir. Anthony Chen | Cynthia Erivo, Alia Shawkat, Ibrahima Ba, Honor Swinton Byrne, Zainab Jah, Suzy Bemba.