DRIFT (Melbourne IFF 2023) – Review by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

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Adapted from Alexander Maksik’s 2013 novel A Marker To Measure Drift, Anthony Chen’s Drift is a notably international affair. Co-written for the screen by the US born Maskik and London based Susanne Farrell, Singaporean Chen brings to life the story of a Liberian refugee who has fled to a Greek island and her tentative friendship with an American tour guide.

Cynthia Erivo gives a career best as Jacqueline, a woman whose life was dramatically shaken when a brief visit home to Liberia from where she had been living in the United Kingdom collided with the horrors of Charles Taylor’s notoriously brutal reign which was tethered so closely to the Second Liberian Civil War which ran from 1999 to 2003. With a strong British accent, Jacqueline is able to pass as a fellow holiday maker, gaining what income she can from giving massages to tourists and scavenging leftover food from local restaurants. She meets tour guide Callie (Alia Shawkat) purely by chance, and an instant connection grows tentatively towards a slow, mutual process of dropping their guards.

Drift is an astonishingly confident and deeply moving film, an unarguable career highlight for both Erivo and Shawkat and further evidence that Chen is one of the most important filmmakers working today. Despite a ghoulish tendency of some critics to demand more of Jacqueline’s back story, the way that Chen (guided of course by Maskik and Farrell’s brilliant screenplay) reveals the horrors that Jacqueline had experienced is a virtual masterclass in how to sensitively depict certain acts of violence on screen.

This is, in fact, one of the film’s strongest elements: to demand “more” reveals perhaps just how depressingly used to trauma porn we have become, expecting to be spoon fed real-world horrors rather than using basic screen literacy skills to apply our broader general knowledge to poetic allusion. Drift is measured, sensitive and devastating, and works just the way it is.

NOTE: Without actors and writers, we wouldn’t have movies. This review was written during the 2023 SAG-AFTRA and WGA strikes in the United States, and the author of this review supports them unequivocally.

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Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is a multi-award-winning film critic and author who has published nine books on cult, horror and exploitation cinema with an emphasis on gender politics, including the 2020 book ‘1000 Women in Horror, 1898-2018’ which was included on Esquire Magazine’s list of the best 125 books written about Hollywood. Alexandra is a contributing editor at Film International, a columnist at Fangoria, an Adjunct Professor at Deakin University, and a member of the advisory board of the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies (LA, NYC, London).