At first glance, Cynthia Erivo’s Sundance drama “Drift” appears to be the latest in a long line of call-to-action refugee stories, set in Europe and focused on those who’ve left Africa, only to encounter resistance once they reach unfamiliar shores. Turns out, while there are certainly overlaps with recent films like “Mediterranea” and “Fire at Sea” — which are deserving social-issue movies to be sure — “Drift” doesn’t have anything like the same agenda.
Rather than serving to indict European indifference, as refugee films so often do, Singaporean director Anthony Chen’s moving feature uses the fictional journey of Erivo’s character, Jacqueline, as an unlikely ode to healing and human connection. That’s an ambitious gamble, since Europe’s real-world immigration troubles are serious enough that inventing a story purely for metaphorical purposes — the way co-writer Alexander Maksik did in his original novel, “A Marker to Measure Drift” — might have seemed tacky. But Erivo is such an intuitive and understated performer, and Chen so nuanced 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 attracts attention at every turn. The mystery here is why Jacqueline seems so resistant to assistance. While the characters around her genuinely want to help, Jacqueline has untold trauma to work through before she can even start to think about rejoining society. Chen doesn’t show audiences how Jacqueline arrived on the Greek island where she now struggles to get by, camped out in a seaside cave, offering foot massages to tourists for a few spare Euros. She might have taken a plane, for all we know (that’s what she tells one police officer, in perfect English).
It takes a while for us to realize it, making sense of fragments spread across multiple flashbacks, but Jacqueline was relatively well-to-do back home. She lived in London for a time, dating a white woman. The two made happy memories together. But something terrible must have happened on a trip back to Liberia, which informs her unwillingness to reengage with society. Jacqueline is bright and resourceful, observing the undocumented people around her for ideas on how to earn a bit of money as she needs it. She cowers every time she sees a cop, and flees when a Black man offers to help.
We feel for Jacqueline, but she’s a puzzle that “Drift” doesn’t pretend that it can solve. Clearly, it will take time for her 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 Shawkat). Both of these women are far from home, unmoored by what life has dealt them, and there appears to be some mutual recognition in their early, tentative interactions. Callie first notices Jacqueline sitting amid some ancient ruins, and like the site itself, seems to intuitively realize that there’s some deep, unknowable history about this woman’s past.
Callie’s surprised to find her still there the following 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 saying she wants to be left alone. The fact that Jacqueline speaks impeccable English allows her to pass, not as a refugee but as a tourist. It also challenges the stereotypes of African immigrants presented in other films, though it will take some time for “Drift” to reveal the character’s unique backstory and circumstances. Turns out, she’s the daughter of a former Liberian minister, educated in England. A visit home turned violent, and Jacqueline’s family was raped and murdered in front of her.
Chen is a humanist at heart, and though he didn’t write this movie, his sensibility proves to be a good fit, resulting in a subtler film than the ingredients might suggest. The script, which Maksik adapted with Susanne Farrell from his own novel, is sparing in its use of dialogue. Most of the time, we’re just watching the character, who is herself cautiously watching the world around her, as if bracing herself for the next nasty surprise. The present-day storyline proves more engaging than the flashbacks, which feel unconvincing and slightly manipulative at times — but they’re essential to understanding what is really going on here.
Jacqueline has survived something so awful, she’s lost her faith in other people. Her experience ought to qualify her for protected status in Europe, but that’s not the point. What matters here is healing, finding some way to face the trauma and move on — which is why the film reveals those horrors in pieces, the way movies about amnesiacs parcel out their past, such that it takes nearly the entire running time to get the full picture. The kindness Callie shows, while not a magic solution, could set her on that path. We hope it will, and yet, “Drift” doesn’t provide quite enough to satisfy. Erivo is excellent, and yet, the film leaves to the imagination the very thing we want from such a story: basically, everything that follows the next-to-last scene, when a soul adrift finally finds its footing.