There’s barely a scene in Anthony Chen’s unhurried drama Drift that doesn’t feature star Cynthia Erivo. As Jacqueline, a Liberian refugee seemingly stranded on the beautiful Greek Isles, she wanders the pearly white beaches, dotted by vacationers who look nothing like her. They barely register her existence, but those who do can’t help but look at her with skepticism and barely-contained disdain. Jacqueling sometimes looks very weak, like she’s about to topple over at any moment. Only part of it has to do with the hunger rumbling in her gut, as the weight of past trauma threatens to send her spiraling downward.
Drift is not a movie for the impatient. Much of it is simply making her way through the city streets, encountering other west African migrants and keeping her wary distance from them. Occasionally, she’ll stop to give those lounging on the beaches a massage; a bit of menial work so she can have something to eat. Occasionally, flashbacks begin to fill Jacqueline’s story, but information on what she has survived rolls out slowly, deliberately, and even then it’s modest at best. We see her and her family in Liberia, a time when Jacqueline had longer hair and smiled broadly. We also see her time living with a white family in England was she received her education. But then there’s also dark memories, flashes of war parties of men and child soldiers carrying guns and blades.
Chen, the acclaimed Singaporean director behind Ilo Ilo, working from a script by Susanne Farrell and Alexander Maksik, the latter having also penned the source novel, is happy to luxuriate in the natural beauty of the locale and that of his star. It’s tough to blame him. It’s also easy to become hypnotized by the glorious visuals and relaxed pacing. The story picks up a little bit as Jacqueline befriends Callie, an American tour guide played by the always-welcome Alia Shawkat. The relationship is thinly-sketched, but it gives us a bit more narrative meat to chew on. Callie begins her association with Jacqueline initially out of concern, and that never really goes away. She sort of feels like a caretaker more than a friend, and maybe that’s what Jacqueline needs in the moment.
Drift acts as a character study of Jacqueline’s growth from past trauma, and it’s at least interesting the way Chen ponders what she truly needs to heal. But it’s also true that the film remains slight, even for a 90-minute runtime, and the lack of specificity can be frustrating. Erivo keeps you invested, though, capturing the difficulty of living in the moment when the past has become part of who you are.
Drift is open in theaters now.