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Cynthia Erivo’s Lead Performance in “Drift” Is Breathtaking


PARK CITY, UTAH – JANUARY 22: (L-R) Alia Shawkat, Director Anthony Chen and Cynthia Erivo attend the 2023 Sundance Film Festival “Drift” Premiere at Eccles Center Theatre on January 22, 2023 in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)

by Bailey Pennick

As the cast and crew of Drift appear on stage at the end of the Sundance Festival premiere of their film, the Eccles Theatre audience erupts in thunderous applause. Among the group being celebrated is the film’s director, Anthony Chen, and the film’s two leads, Cynthia Erivo and Alia Shawkat. Erivo, who plays Jacqueline in the film, is asked the first question about character inspiration, but she pauses and seems a little distracted.

“That’s the first time I’ve seen it,” she says, voice wavering before giving way to tears. Another huge round of applause envelops her as she collects herself. This immense wave of emotion breaking through a reserved exterior is rare for an actor well-versed in press junkets and premieres, but it is fitting for Drift. The struggle between public perception and private emotions runs deep throughout the film.

Drift follows Jacqueline — a West African woman struggling to live on a Greek island, surviving on stolen food, abandoned buildings, and tips from tourists. She keeps to herself as much as possible, walking in the shadows whenever she can and avoiding the authorities as well as other island residents. Her solitary life is in direct contrast to her resort-laden surroundings, though she’s always in the view of the public.

“I felt really drawn to the humanity that Jackie had been written as,” Erivo explains, referring to both the film’s script and the novel it’s based on (2013’s A Marker to Measure Drift). “The whole piece felt like it was an ode to those people who go unnoticed and who don’t get seen. You pass them by in the street — and they look like you and me — but you don’t notice them. [This story] treated this one person with a lot of kindness and dignity, and I felt drawn to being able to tell that story.”

Kindness is also at the center of Shawkat’s character, Callie, a guide who tries to strike up a friendship with Jackie after recognizing her at some of her regular touring spots. While they start with warm smiles and small talk on a bench overlooking the sea, Callie tries to get to know Jackie better, but senses a wall between them. However, instead of trying to tear her new friend’s wall down by force, Callie just leaves the door open for Jackie to come closer. “Callie doesn’t know how to do anything but hold space,” says Shawkat of the characters’ friendship.

She doesn’t pry or judge, and that’s what ultimately allows Jackie to open up to another person about the horrific trauma she endured in war-torn Liberia before she fled to anonymity on this island.

Erivo brings a nuanced and devastating performance to both sides of Jackie: the easygoing and warm daughter, sister, and partner within the film’s flashbacks, and closed-off survivor, just trying to move forward with one foot in front of the other. “I’ve got to give it to Cynthia,” gushes the film’s director. “[This is] the most naked and honest performance I’ve ever seen from an actress.” 

The honesty that Chen spotlights bores itself right into the hearts and minds of Drift’s viewers. It reminds you that every person you meet has their own struggles and past that affects them every single day. The best thing that we can do is continue to hold space for people and their experiences.

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