(director: Anthony Chen; screenwriters: Susie Farrell, Alexander Maksik/based on the Alexander Maksik novel A Marker to Measure Drift; cinematographer: Crystel Fournier; editor: Hoping Chen; music:Re Olunuga; cast: Cynthia Erivo (Jacqueline), Alia Shawkat (Callie), Ibrahima Ba (Ousmane), Honor Swinton Byrne (Helen), Zainab Jah (Etweda Kamara), Amanda Drew (Sonia), Suzy Bemba (Saifa), Vincent Vermignon (Michael); Runtime: 93; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Peter Spears, Emilie Georges, Naima Abed, Anthony Chen, Cynthia Erivo, Solome Williams; BFI/Giraffe Pictures 2023-USA/UK/Greece/France-in English & Greek)

“A chilling character study telling us about the horrors of the refugee situation from a female prospective.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

In his first-English language film, the Singapore director Anthony Chen (“Ilo Ilo”/”Wet Season”) gives us a gritty but unresolved violent drama in the form of a chilling character study telling us about the horrors of the refugee situation from a female prospective. It’s based on the 2013 Alexander Maksik novel A Marker to Measure Drift, that’s scripted by the author and Susie Farrell.

It was the winner of Cannes’ 2013 Camera d’Or for best first feature.

Jacqueline (Cynthia Erivo, in a haunting performance) is a west African migrant from Liberia on a touristy picturesque Greek island while still suffering from past traumas, who speaks with a British accent. It’s set in 2003, the year of a bloody coup and civil war in Liberia.

Living alone on the beach, in a cave, we observe how carefully the almost penniless Jacqueline washes her only set of clothes during the day and earns some money giving foot massages to the beach goers after stealing olive oil from a restaurant, and at night she must elude the racist police as she makes a bed out of soft beach pebbles to sleep in the sand.

In due time, through flashbacks, we learn a little more of her mysterious life story. Flashbacks include her affair with a white British girlfriend (Honor Swinton Byrne) during her stay in London, and we see a few happy times she has with her upper-class minister’s family in Liberia before they were forced during the bloody civil war to join the military by the rebels.

In the film’s sparsity we never learn how and why Jacqueline got here. But we see how things change for her when she meets the good-natured and cheerful tour guide, the aimless and lonely American émigré named Callie (Alia Shawkat). The ex pat Callie takes an interest in the troubled Jacqueline, who lies by telling her only friend she’s a British tourist on vacation.

The warmth from her friend gives Jacqueline a chance to somewhat temporarily heal from her stress and loneliness. That supports the film’s rather forced theme of being around kind people can make the difference of surviving or not for the hard-pressed refugee.

It played at the Sundance Film Festival.

'Drift' review with Cynthia Erivo