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A Liberian woman with a mysterious past dwells in limbo in 'Drift'

In<em> Drift, </em>Jacqueline (Cynthia Erivo) winds up in Greece after experiencing something terrible during a visit to her family in Liberia.
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In Drift, Jacqueline (Cynthia Erivo) winds up in Greece after experiencing something terrible during a visit to her family in Liberia.

If you were watching the Super Bowl the other night, you might have seen the just-released trailer for the upcoming movie adapted from the Broadway musical Wicked. Whether it turns out to be any good or not, I'm curious if for no other reason than the chance to see Cynthia Erivo in a leading role.

Not every actor can hold her own opposite wall-to-wall CGI, with or without witchy green makeup. But after her magnetic performances in thrillers likeBad Times at the El Royale and Widows, and her steely groundedness as Harriet Tubman in the drama Harriet, I like Erivo's odds.

Her latest impressive showcase can be found in the independent drama Drift, in which she plays a Liberian refugee named Jacqueline. We first see Jacqueline sitting quietly on the shore of an unnamed Greek isle. She keeps to herself, even as she walks along a beach crowded with tourists, strolls past open-air markets and sips coffee at an outdoor café.

The scenery is gorgeous, but Jacqueline seems blind to its beauty. We don't yet know what she's been through, but the restrained anguish of Erivo's performance suggests the very worst.

The scenery is gorgeous, but Jacqueline seems blind to its beauty. We don't yet know what she's been through, but the restrained anguish of Erivo's performance suggests the very worst.

For food, Jacqueline subsists on sugar packets and tries to sneak leftovers from restaurants. When she needs money, she wanders the beach, offering foot massages to sunbathers. On those rare occasions when she speaks, she does so with an English accent, and the movie shows us fragmented flashbacks to a time when she was living happily in London. But in the course of those flashbacks, we learn that Jacqueline recently made a trip to see her family in Liberia, and that something terrible happened while she was there.

The details are kept pretty vague. But we start to piece it together once Jacqueline strikes up a conversation with an American tour guide named Callie, who's leading travelers through the ruins of an ancient mountainside village. Callie, as played by Alia Shawkat, is so friendly and easygoing that Jacqueline can't help but warm to her. But she's still pretty guarded, and at one point she lies and says she's traveling in Greece with her husband.

Drift was adapted by Susanne Farrell and Alexander Maksik from Maksik's 2013 novel, called A Marker to Measure Drift. The movie was directed by the Singaporean filmmaker Anthony Chen, who years ago made the wonderful coming-of-age drama Ilo Ilo. Drift is Chen's first English-language film and his first feature set outside Singapore, which is fitting for a movie about wandering in a strange land. And indeed, Drift at times feels wobbly and unsure of its footing as it gradually unravels Jacqueline's story.

I'm generally not an admirer of narratives as flashback-heavy as this one, in which the past keeps jutting insistently into the present. There's something a little too mechanical about the way Jacqueline's story leaps backward and forward through time. Inevitably the movie gets to the tragedy in Liberia itself, and handles it sensitively; it's difficult to watch, but it doesn't feel exploitative.

Even so, what's most fascinating about Jacqueline's journey is the part that remains unexplained: We never learn how she found her way from Liberia to Greece, or if she wound up in Greece through chance or by choice. You have to wonder if Jacqueline, still in shock and unwilling to return to her former life in London, has chosen to dwell in a sort of limbo. Becoming a refugee could be her way of retreating from the world. That makes Drift very different from the countless recent films that have been made about the international migrant crisis, including the documentary Fire at Sea, the horror movie His House and the recently Oscar-nominated Italian drama Io Capitano.

What also distinguishes Drift is the friendship that movingly develops between Jacqueline and Callie, as they slowly open up to each other about their personal experiences. Erivo and Shawkat are wonderful on-screen together; even before Callie knows the full truth about what Jacqueline has been through, she seems to see and understand her in a way no one else does.

Drift wisely avoids sentimentality here; it doesn't pretend that Jacqueline can ever be fully healed of her pain. But by the end, her eyes seem a little more open than before, as if she had finally begun to see the beauty of the world again.

Copyright 2024 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Justin Chang
Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.