Singaporean director Anthony Chen makes an assured English-language debut with Drift, a poignant drama about a displaced West African woman struggling to survive on a Greek island. Chen first made waves in 2013 when his intimate family portrait Ilo Ilo won the Camera d’Or for best first feature at Cannes. He brings a similar nuanced observational style to Drift, steeping the film in atmosphere while letting scenes breathe.
We follow Jacqueline, played with quiet intensity by Cynthia Erivo, as she drifts along the shoreline offering foot massages to tourists for spare change. Her haunted eyes and guarded body language suggest unimaginable trauma in her past. Through fragmented flashbacks, we slowly learn that she was once a privileged daughter of a Liberian government minister.
But violent upheaval at home tore her stable world apart, forcing her to flee as a refugee. We’re never told how she arrived in Greece, adding to the mystery. Now struggling to meet basic needs while sleeping in beach caves, Jacqueline retreats into herself, resisting help from both locals and fellow African immigrants.
As Jacqueline’s painful journey unfolds, Chen and Erivo craft a poignant study of grief and resilience. While light on plot, Drift moves through its spaces between words and gestures, carried by Erivo’s raw performance and Chen’s empathetic lens. We long to see this wounded soul emerge from her isolation into the light of human connection once more.
Jacqueline’s Haunting Past Colors Her Solitary Existence
As Drift opens, we know little about the scraps of a life Jacqueline now leads alone on the Greek island. Sleeping in deserted buildings or beach caves, she quietly observes the tourists and locals, occasionally offering to wash their feet for a few euros when hunger sets in. The sight of another African immigrant sends her fleeing in panic. What awful traumas haunt this woman, turning her so fearful and withdrawn? Chen pieces together the wrenching truth as we gradually learn more of her former life through flashbacks.
We discover Jacqueline grew up the cherished daughter of a high-ranking Liberian minister and got a cosmopolitan education in London, once weaving hip braids in her hair and dating another stylish woman. But a trip back home with her loving family exploded in blood and horror as civil war engulfed the country. The scene of Jacqueline hiding with her sister and mother crystallizes into our first stark glimpse at the source of her anguish. As brutal soldiers barge into their home, we watch the terrible violation unfold with graphic intensity, establishing the catastrophic losses that so utterly broke Jacqueline’s spirit.
In the aftermath, now set adrift in Greece, she struggles for survival on the margins, perhaps not fully comprehending herself how she arrived at this point. The details emerge slowly, but we gather enough pieces to understand the depth of her post-traumatic isolation. Every strange face and loud noise reawakens her flight instincts, sending this profoundly wounded soul deeper into hiding. Even small interactions seem to strip Jacqueline emotionally bare. She appears trapped reliving her traumatic past, unable to take refuge in the present no matter how far she travels.
Chen and Erivo shape this singular character with profound empathy, despite her circumstances remaining largely a mystery. Through Jacqueline’s solitary daily rituals and hunted expressions, we witness one refugee’s unfathomable hardships etched indelibly into her spirit like lines on a sea-weathered stone. And we ache for the glimmers of new connection struggling to take fragile root within her.
Two Lost Souls Inch Towards Healing
As Jacqueline walls herself off in grief, the possibility of human connection flickers when she crosses paths with Callie, a lonely American leading tours on the island. Played with compassionate humor by Alia Shawkat, Callie first notices Jacqueline sitting amid ancient ruins—perhaps sensing a kindred displaced spirit. When their interactions gradually deepen, we witness two uprooted women tentatively inching towards friendship despite vastly different pasts.
Callie continues reaching out, puzzled by the mysterious African woman who seems to inhabit the island ruins like a modern ghost. Though Jacqueline rebuffs her overtures with lies about a hotel stay, over time Callie’s patience and empathy slowly thaw emotional barriers between them. As Callie later reveals her own romantic disappointments and family issues back home, we find surprising common ground between the refugee determined to remain invisible and the drifting American expat longing to be seen.
In small gestures like offering food or a place to shelter, Callie provides the possibility of human solace for Jacqueline to consider. Their unlikely connection suggests how even profound trauma may one day lose its grip through simple acts of kindness or being heard by a caring soul. While the film leaves their friendship open-ended, these quiet scenes resonate with the hope that Jacqueline can reclaim aspects of her humanity and capacity for intimacy after unthinkable brutality and loss.
As both women reveal their inner scars and strengths scene by scene, Erivo and Shawkat paint an affecting portrait of two lives set adrift by turmoil at last crossing currents. Their tentative dance towards trust becomes the emotional anchor for Drift’s exploration into the lingering wounds of displacement and female resilience.
Contemplative Imagery Underpins Themes of Trauma’s Aftermath
True to his observational style, Chen steeps Drift in contemplative visual textures rather than following a propulsive plot. Cinematographer Crystel Fournier, known for evocative work in Great Freedom, crafts muted color palettes and shadowy environments that mirror Jacqueline’s inner state of mind.
Striking compositions frequently frame Jacqueline swallowed in cave darkness or set against the indifferent blues of sea and sky, underscoring her isolation. As she drifts wraith-like through the film’s spaces, Fournier’s camera lingers patiently on Erivo’s mournful expressions rather than dialogue to further our emotional connection.
These visually arresting seaside tableaus explore the timeless ruin left by trauma’s wake without preaching. Like the ancient hillside ruins still standing centuries after disaster, Jacqueline’s daily struggle serves as a poignant symbol of lives broken and displaced by brutality across eras. Yet amidst the atmospheric gloom, Chen discovers tentative grace notes as she observes small kindnesses offered by locals and tourists alike.
Rather than offer solutions, Drift evokes the enduring grief imprinted on those who survive and witness horror, like footprints slowly erased by the tide. Through Chen’s unhurried style, we absorb the enormity of atrocity’s aftermath rippling through Jacqueline’s haunted trajectory. But flickers of light also penetrate the darkness, as this solitary woman rediscovers her own tentative steps towards healing.
Questions Linger Around Portrayal and Context
While critics praised Erivo’s raw performance and Chen’s aesthetic choices, Drift provoked debate around how successfully it humanized the refugee experience. Some reviewers took issue with the thinly sketched political backstory in Jacqueline’s homeland, which could leave viewers confused on relevant historical details. We never learn what specific war uprooted her privileged life, or how she secured passage to Greece, creating narrative gaps. The traumatic flashbacks also come late in her arc, playing more as emotional manipulation than revelation after so much oblique buildup.
Other perspectives criticized the film for exploiting Jacqueline’s suffering without capturing the societal specificity of her identity beyond trauma. By revealing so little of her inner self, her opaque reactions risk seeming like symptoms rather than humanizing her grief within a fully embodied character. The emphasis stays narrowly on her victimization instead of highlighting the vibrant spirit and personal relationships brutally stripped away.
While Chen wished to craft an intimate study of psychological exile, some argue he misses the contextual details that would illuminate Jacqueline as a complete person. Her past remains too broad and symbolic, lacking nuanced connections between Liberian history, the African immigrant experience, and the visible scars across Jacqueline’s soul that Drift traces in haunting close-up.
A Piercing Character Study of Displacement’s Ghosts
While imperfect, Chen and Erivo ultimately craft an affecting portrait of one woman’s psychological exile in Drift. What the film lacks in narrative detail, it atones through virtuoso mood, visual textures, and Erivo’s shattering lead performance. We may never fully grasp the intricacies leading to Jacqueline’s scarred withdrawal from humanity. But in vital moments, Chen’s patient camera illuminates her searing pain with profoundly moving results.
Erivo’s hypnotic portrayal etches Jacqueline’s trauma into our minds through every haunted gesture and retreated glance without speeches. And by leaving much unspoken about the terrors that shattered her identity, Chen avoids easy categorization of her suffering. We come to see Jacqueline less as a symbol of global refugee struggles or African wars than as an individual soul drifting untethered through memory’s darkness towards an uncertain future.
While some desired clearer sociopolitical context, Chen ultimately took a more poetic route by letting Jacqueline’s anguish remain an impressionistic cry against humanity’s violence. If Drift falls short of issuing an outright call for justice, it succeeds through Erivo and Chen’s artistry in carving space for viewers to mourn what violations steal away, and what pathways to renewal timidly wait ahead for those still lost inside grief’s grip.
Though imperfect as a sociopolitical drama, Drift remains a haunting tone poem about the lingering wounds left by trauma's violation. Carried by Erivo's shattering lead performance, Chen delivers an atmospheric lament on the ghosts left wandering when humanity turns cruel. Their empathetic collaboration earns the film a rating of 8 out of 10.
- Powerful lead performance by Cynthia Erivo
- Strong visual aesthetics and cinematography
- Empathetic direction by Anthony Chen
- Poignant exploration of grief and trauma
- Effective atmosphere and quiet mood
- Moving friendship between Jacqueline and Callie
- Vague political backstory and context
- Slow pacing that drags at times
- Emotional manipulation around Jacqueline's trauma
- Lack of character detail beyond her pain
- Questions around specificity of the portrayal