Save for its few flashback moments of horrific, haunting trauma, Drift, the mostly quiet story of a west African migrant reeling from the unimaginable on a Greek resort isle, is easy on the eyes. Director Anthony Chen’s film, from a screenplay by Susanne Farrell and Alexander Maksik, gives harried aftermath the sheen of tranquil nobility, resilience hiding in plain sight – the crowd of barely clothed, languid white bodies dotting star Cynthia Erivo’s opening walk down the beach, the bleached yellow of the Mediterranean sun, the way Erivo’s Jacqueline slowly, carefully washes her one set of clothes. Even Jacqueline’s night ritual, arranging plastic bags of pebbles for a makeshift beach cave mattress, takes on the lulling rhythm of a reverie.
It’s a lot of compelling aesthetic, anchored at most turns by Erivo’s committed, tense performance, that like many a Sundance movie can only cover so much undercooked structure. Drift, based on Maksik’s 2013 novel A Marker to Measure Drift, relies on Jacqueline’s trauma-fragmented memory to unfold the story too slowly. For the first half hour, Jacqueline is mostly a cipher, scrounging for money via beachside foot massages by day, flitting through shadows and dodging bigoted police by night. We catch tantalizing snippets of her clearly suppressed past in too-short flashbacks – a time when she had long braids and a white British girlfriend (Honor Swinton Byrne), a time when she lived in England, a joyful moment with her privileged minister’s family in militarized Liberia. The script’s spareness – what year is it? How did Jacqueline get here? Why is she so alone? – provokes equal parts mystery and frustration.
Things pick up about a half hour in, once Jacqueline encounters a conspiratorial, caring tour guide named Callie (Alia Shawkat). An American émigré with a sunny disposition, Callies takes an interest in the skittish Jacqueline, for reasons that are never quite clear enough. The connection, however thinly sketched, introduces much-needed momentum into the story – to answer any of Callie’s questions, Jacqueline must lie (her British accent allows her to pose as a tourist on holiday from London) in a way her white-knuckled grip on traumatic memories cannot sustain.
The rest of the 93-minute film plays as a character study of Jacqueline’s tentative healing under the attention of another person – sometimes kind, sometimes badgering, always remarkably consistent – and the eventual reveal of the absolute horror that flung her, penniless and terrified and alone, from Liberia. That revelation is gut-wrenching, and meticulously edited to convey just enough atrocity without tipping into gratuitousness. The rest of the film, in contrast, feels too blunted at the edges; scenes between Jacqueline and Callie, which lean heavily on glances and freighted silences, play as frustrating fragments rather than sentences.
Drift benefits immensely from the commanding presence of Erivo, who is better in the more dramatic expressions of emotion – sobbing through the reveal of her story, or panicking at a triggering experience of claustrophobia – than she is in Jacqueline’s mode of blinkered inwardness. Whether it’s an underdone script or the character’s repression or Erivo’s performance, Jacqueline often comes off, in the quieter moments, as curiously blank, though always intriguing. Shawkat is given even less characterization, but nonetheless pops on screen; a better movie would have made much more out of her charisma and Jacqueline and Callie’s chemical, nascent curiosity in each other.
Drift is ultimately, other than the climactic sequence which clearly relays why Jacqueline hides out and barely looks people in the eye, a film that leans too hard on suggestion. There’s hints of a flirtation of between Jacqueline and Callie, of Jacqueline’s past life with a white British family, of the danger posed to Jacqueline by anti-migrant sentiment on the Greek island (another point muddled by the film’s loose time period; the novel is set in the aftermath of a violent political coup in Liberia in 2003). Each thread is individually intriguing, especially as embodied by Erivo and Shawkat. But together, it’s a thin tapestry. Though beautifully rendered and sensitive to the muzzling grip of trauma, Drift leaves too much unsaid.