“Drift,” a patient character study set on a craggy Greek island, proves a mesmerizing showcase for the actress Cynthia Erivo’s talents. She plays Jacqueline, a traumatized Liberian refugee whose cautious air is a gentle source of forward motion even as the film around her stalls.
The story takes place during a season of vagrancy in Jacqueline’s life, tracking her efforts to find shelter and enough food to keep from fainting. She spends her days selling foot massages to sunbathers and her nights sleeping in sandy beach nooks, and is often pictured alone against the coastal scenery. Eventually, she meets Callie (Alia Shawkat), a chatterbox American tour guide whose hunger for friendship helps Jacqueline to open up.
The director, Anthony Chen, is sensitive to Jacqueline’s struggles, and shows her mental state as a delicate equilibrium. The film features limited dialogue, and Erivo conveys feeling through body language, expression and small glances. What emerges is a portrait of a young woman using survival mode as a means to stave off an impending breakdown.
“Drift” frames the source of Jacqueline’s psychological torment as a mystery, meting out cryptic flashbacks to the character’s back story in Liberia. Those scenes culminate in seemingly inevitable tragedy that the film treats as a grand reveal. This upheaval is informative, but the film is at its strongest when it lingers in present tense, exploring how Jacqueline’s strategically cultivated myopia keeps her alive.
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 33 minutes. In theaters.