Sundance Review: Cynthia Erivo & Alia Shawkat In Anthony Chen’s ‘Drift’
Anyone who has traveled to seaside resort areas around the world will recognize them, the obvious foreigners who spend their days approaching tourists with assorted trinkets to sell and are most often ignored or shooed away by Westerners. Precious few films have put such figures centerstage, but Drift does that and quite a bit more as it examines a young woman whose currently forlorn position in the world masks the very different sort of life to which she was once accustomed.
Tragedy and bereavement are dealt with an exceptionally acute and insightful manner in Drift. Working from 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 filmgoers would readily avoid, a personal tragedy of staggering magnitude. But not only has Singapore director Anthony Chen set himself a tough task in this ambitious adaptation, he has also notably succeeded in making viewers see the world through very different eyes.
The film, which world premiered in the Premieres section at the Sundance Film Festival, operates in observational mode for the first half-hour or so as we behold the curious movements of a young woman one assumes is a refugee from Africa as she moves through the crowds of tourists along a beautiful coastal resort stretch of Greece. Jacqueline (Cynthia Erivo) gives a massage here, earns a tip there, and you soon get the feeling that if she could make herself invisible, she would readily do so.
But there’s something about this woman that sets her apart from the other refugees working the beach, the first giveaway being her tony British accent, even if she speaks as few words as possible. You get the feeling that, despite her effort to remain inconspicuous, she is afraid of being exposed or somehow found out.
This sense of intrigue has been sustained just long enough when another young woman, Callie (the ever-welcome Alia Shawkat), a legit and gregarious tour guide who leads groups around the gorgeous and rugged seaside area, makes a connection with her, or at least attempts to; Jacqueline is as withdrawn and close-mouthed as she could be.
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At first unobtrusively, then forcefully, Jacqueline’s deep tragic secret is revealed. In the meantime, the two women engage in a somewhat tentative but eventually meaningful relationship that ultimately draws out the reason for Jacqueline’s self-exile from life. Her story emerges in fits and starts until some intense flashbacks provide the full story. Shawkat’s natural openness and the joy she takes in talking ideally contrasts with the unrelieved darkness of Jacqueline’s lot in life.
Once the dreaded secret is revealed, you begin to appreciate all the more the quiet and restrained way Chen and the writers have structured their telling of this tragic tale. The circumstances and their aftermath might have induced more crude and obvious filmmakers to crank up the melodramatic nature of the payoff, but the proportion and slightly underplayed approach feels just right given the mystery embedded in the more subtle approach taken.
This admirably achieved storytelling would appeal to what, once upon a time, was called the arthouse audience. To what extent that even exists anymore is open to question, but discerning viewers wherever they are will well appreciate the skill with which this slow-burning drama has been prepared.