“I know what you mean” and “I get what you’re going through” are statements that are meant to express support for someone else but most often serve to undermine the significance and specificity of a person’s experience. Without having been there, it’s not really possible to truly relate. Drift presents a scenario in which one woman is recovering from a devastating ordeal without seeking the support of anyone else, understandably stuck in her grief and doing her best to live from one moment to the next.
Directed by Anthony Chen, Drift is based on the novel A Marker to Measure Drift by Alexander Maksik — who co-wrote the screenplay with Susanne Farrell — and it’s a story rooted in sadness. Oscar-nominated actress Cynthia Erivo (Harriet) stars as Jacqueline, who wanders around a Greek island offering to massage the feet of vacationing tourists for a small fee while carrying everything she owns on her back. Flashbacks reveal a warm relationship with an English girlfriend and her family before returning home to her wealthy Liberian parents and sister. There is clear unrest within the country during that visit, and the exact course of events is unveiled slowly and painfully over the course of the film as Jacqueline’s memories are triggered.
There is an element of Jacqueline’s experience that makes it seem as if she has, in part, chosen this solitary fate. A chilling scene during her trip home finds her father — a government figure — riding in a car with their driver past a group of people being held by armed forces along the road. No one says anything about it but it’s evident that violence awaits them, and when the walls of their large family compound are later breached by young men wielding guns and knives, there is no one there to protect them. They do not deserve to be targeted in such a vicious manner, but there is also an implication that they aren’t entirely innocent, as they do nothing to stop malice towards a population that has turned on them as a result.
The sole bright spot of Jacqueline’s time in the film’s present is her interaction with Callie (Alia Shawkat), a tour guide who sees her as a welcome distraction from the deluge of obnoxious visitors she must serve on a daily basis. Callie wants and expects nothing from Jacqueline, and on multiple occasions offers her support without asking questions about why she needs the help. That friendship makes watching the film palatable since it provides a way in — a method to relate to Jacqueline since she keeps so much of what she is going through to herself. While someone who presses Jacqueline for answers to help her get what she truly needs might be helpful and make for an optimistic film, that is not Drift‘s objective.
While Erivo has only been acting in film for the past five years, she has varied her role choices considerably during that short time, though Jacqueline perhaps could have used some of the resolve and intensity embedded in some of her past characters, such as those in Widows and Harriet. However, Jacqueline’s quietness and her reluctance to engage with anyone is what makes her such a compelling protagonist, and there is a glimmer and energy present in the flashback scenes entirely absent from the state in which audiences meet her.
Chen subtly guides this slow-paced narrative, one that never rushes Jacqueline to a place of anything resembling catharsis and instead simply dwells in her misery with her. The long-awaited reveal of exactly what occurred is as violent and horrifying as the buildup suggests, and there is no attempt to make it seem less terrible or tragic by giving Jacqueline a redemption arc. This is a film that lives in the uncomfortable, recognizing that some people won’t ever be able to find happiness. A fleeting sense of normalcy may have to do, and that’s just what this melancholy film pursues.
Drift premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, where it will screen twice more this week.