'Drift' Review: Cynthia Erivo Stars In An Impressionistic, But Hollow Refugee Drama [Sundance]

Based on the 2013 novel “A Marker to Measure Drift” by Alexander Maksik, set just after the Second Liberian Civil War in 2003, “Drift” aims for impressionistic insight but is ultimately manipulative and reductive. Maksik’s screenplay, which he co-wrote with Susanne Farrell, sees its heroine Jacqueline (Cynthia Erivo,Harriet”) as nothing more than a vessel to explore an outsider’s view of the trauma inflicted by war. Director Anthony Chen (“The Wet Season”) does his best to elevate the story with sumptuous visuals, but that alone cannot redeem the film’s hollowness. 

READ MORE: 25 Most Anticipated Movies At The 2023 Sundance Film Festival

Erivo’s Jacqueline is a penniless woman living in a cave near a beach town in Greece. She silently etches out a living by eating sugar packets and earning a little cash massaging the feet of tourists. One day she meets a charming ex-pat American tour guide named Callie (Alia Shawkat, “Arrested Development”), finding something of a kindred spirit. As the two slowly bond, Jacqueline opens up about her traumatic past.  

For most of the film, Jacqueline’s story is told through a series of flashbacks, edited to evoke the way fractured memories and trauma can manifest at any time. Yet this editing adds to the obliqueness of her characterization. While we do get flashes of her family in Liberia and the family she lived with in England, we never get any idea of Jacqueline’s identity outside of her trauma. 

When the British family calls her their “Princess from the darkest Africa,” we never see her reaction. How does that make her feel? When her family in Liberia calls her their “British daughter,” we similarly never understand how Jacqueline feels about the moniker. Why was she in England? What was she studying? This film doesn’t seem to care enough about her personhood to give us any of these details. It’s implied that she had a close, possibly queer relationship with her friend (Honor Swinton Byrne, “The Souvenir”), yet does that aspect of her life make her feel when she’s back home? Again, this film doesn’t care to explore any of this at all. 

In Liberia, Jacqueline’s family were affluent, her father a minister for Charles Ghankay Taylor’s government. The trauma inflicted on her family came from them being in this privileged position, yet that aspect is not explored either. When Jacquline finally tells her story to Callie, the depictions of the massacre of her family are brutal, carried out mainly by child soldiers. Yet, these children are depicted solely as villainous brutalizers. There’s no room for a nuanced discussion of the trauma inflicted on children who become child soldiers. Just an outsider’s reductive view of a complicated conflict.

Similarly, when Jacqueline meets another man from Africa (Ibrahima Ba, “Father & Soldier”), he seems to only exist as a blank slate for the writers to explore the theme of drifting. What country is he from? What is his story? For the writers, it wouldn’t matter what country either of them is from. As refugees, they are always drifting. What this means for them internally is reduced to their surface-level similarities. Because they are an other—Africans in Europe —all the writers can see is that sameness, not the distinct characteristics of fully fleshed-out human beings. 

Yet, when it comes to Callie’s story, we almost know too much. We learn she married a “greek god” type who left her when she couldn’t conceive a child. How Shawkat managed to utter the line “my body failed me” without cringing shows her talent for imbuing honesty into her roles, even when stuck with the most hackneyed writing. Jacqueline’s queerness is again slightly hinted at as they grow closer but still left frustratingly vague. 

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the film is its obsession with Jacqueline’s underwear. She’s always shown washing them. There are multiple close-ups of them drying on rocks. In what’s supposed to be the film’s emotional peak, Jacqueline strips to take a bath, and Chen’s camera focuses solely on her underwear on the ground. When Callie offers to put her clothes in the wash, she snatches them from her, clutching them as she finally shares her traumatic story. It’s as if they’re a symbol for the sexual trauma she witnessed, yet rather than act as an envoy into Jacqueline’s inner feelings, this continued obsession with them begins to feel both exploitative and voyeuristic.

Through all this nonsense masquerading as depth, Erivo is not given much to work with. In the flashback sequences, a wide smile is perpetually plastered over their face, her eyes wide yet inexpressive. That is, until the traumatic night when her eyes shift to a different shade of blank, meant to evoke the daze in which she finds herself. Unfortunately, her choices, coupled with how underwritten her character is, result in Jacqueline remaining an empty vessel rather than a fully realized person with any interiority. 

“Drift” is never able to overcome the voyeuristic, paternalistic roots of its source. It sees all of Africa as one big monolithic region of trauma, with a surface-level sense of place and no respect for the individual countries, cultures, or people whose lives – and deaths – it mines for superficial profundity. [D]

Follow along with all our coverage of the 2023 Sundance Film.