Review by Sean Boelman
Anthony Chen is an acclaimed Singaporean director, and for his English language debut, he helms an adaptation of Alexander Maksik’s novel, A Marker to Measure Drift. Led by performances and direction that are wonderfully subtle, Drift will go down as one of the best movies of the festival even if it isn’t one of the flashiest.
The film follows a refugee who, having left her life of privilege in her war-torn home country after a horrible tragedy, begins a friendship with an American tour guide on a Greek island. It’s an extraordinarily humanistic version of this story, lacking the melodrama that often drives films about this theme.
Chen’s direction utilizes the gorgeous scenery of the Greek islands in a fascinating way. Although Crystel Fournier’s cinematography is stunning, it is used to create a facade that allows the movie’s darker themes to create a stark juxtaposition against the idyllic landscape on which they are explored.
Cynthia Erivo’s performance in the leading role is absolutely breathtaking, and somewhat against type for her. Up to this point, Erivo has made her career giving performances that are big and showy — not surprising given that she started on the stage — but the lack of dialogue in much of the film requires her to use her mannerisms and facial expressions to communicate emotion rather than her voice.
Also playing against type is Alia Shawkat, who gives an unexpectedly tender performance opposite Erivo. Although this is firmly Erivo’s movie, Shawkat seems to recognize that, radiating a warmth in her role that allows Erivo to do her best possible work. It’s a refreshingly unfussy supporting turn in a festival that is full of scene-stealers.
The film works best when it explores the unorthodox friendship that forms between the two characters. The flashbacks to the protagonist’s past, detailing her experience as a refugee, aren’t as well-developed, culminating in a third act that, while harrowing, is a bit more expositional than it needs to be.
Indeed, the best parts of the movie are those which are more subdued and less overt. Much of the first hour, we follow Erivo’s character as she struggles as a refugee in a strange land, haunted by her trauma, and what makes it stand out from other immigrant stories is its restrained approach. The finale is certainly emotional, but it trades the poeticism and subtext for distressing brutality.
Although the final act may not feel entirely earned, extraordinary performances by Cynthia Erivo and Alia Shawkat and beautiful direction from Anthony Chen allow Drift to resonate deeply. Its quietly contemplative nature may be too slow for some but will linger in one’s mind long after the credits roll.
Drift is playing at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, which runs January 19-29 in-person in Park City, UT and January 24-29 online.