Sundance 2023: Drift & The Eight Mountains

The Eight Mountains (Sundance Institute)

A pair of films out of the festival chronicle friendships new and old with differing degrees of success.

While last year’s Banshees of Inisherin examined the end of a long friendship, Anthony Chen’s Drift depicts the slow but hopeful beginning of a new one. Banshees focused on a connection built out of commonality–same island and neighbors, similar life circumstances and concerns. By contrast, Drift revolves around a duo who don’t fit with each other or their surroundings. One, Callie (Alia Shawkat), is an American tour guide defined by her warm and non-judgemental demeanor. The other, Jacqueline (Cynthia Erivo), a Liberian-British refugee, is more guarded and grounded down.

Unfortunately, Chen’s awkwardly plotted aims at political statements too frequently get in the way of what seems to be a wonderfully compassionate burgeoning connection between these two women. Chen is a bit out of his depth here unlike with his wonderful debut Ilo Ilo. Despite that film deftly exploring similar themes like class, immigration, and a friendship between two disparate parties, Drift never succeeds in the same way. 

Drift (Sundance Institute)
(Sundance Institute)

Perhaps the difference lies in the level of stakes. The domesticated, compartmentalized experience of immigrant housekeepers from his debut is replaced with a total loss of place and belonging. On top of that, Jacqueline carries the trauma of witnessing death and destruction firsthand. 

Drift frustratingly tries to evoke its emotions purely through juxtaposed imagery and heavy use of flashback sequences. It’s a disappointingly slack approach from a filmmaker who has previously demonstrated a great ability to draw emotion from lonely, fish-out-of-water characters. Here, time shifts consistently undercut Erivo’s performance. The film doesn’t allow her to build the contemplative connection that her character deserves. Instead, there’s a constant delineation of what Jacqueline’s “journey” has been. It’s as if the homeless refugee can only gain the audience’s sympathy through constant reminders and addendums of her past. The movie takes a positive turn when she forms a friendship with Callie’s arrival. She seems to empower Jacqueline to be herself. Unfortunately, that’s something the movie tells, but doesn’t afford the audience an opportunity to witness. 

Drift frustratingly tries to evoke its emotions purely through juxtaposed imagery and heavy use of flashback sequences.

A mutual sense of displacement defines their friendship in its early stages. Trust and the willing exposure of lies and uncomfortable pasts further bolster their intimacy. On the other hand, Felix van Groeningen and Charlotte Vandermeersch’s The Eight Mountains return us to bonds built of commonality. It examines the nostalgic and poignant elements that shape the lives of two men, Pietro (Luca Marinelli) and Bruno (Alessandro Borghi), who meet as children in the Italian Alps. 

The Eight Mountains is unabashedly sentimental about its central characters, especially in how their lives become disrupted or dispirited over time.

While something of a cheat code for great cinematography to film in the mountains, there’s no denying the stunning 1.33:1 frames. More impressively, cinematographer Ruben Impens carefully aligns the characters and their surroundings to fit the changes in mood and dynamics of their relationships with each other and the mountains. The color is so pronounced, and the imagery has a vitality that is rare in digital cinema. Together, they add to the textures of the land and people, drawing out a deep sense of belonging to a particular place.  

Unlike Callie and Jacqueline, a common place where both feel at home intrinsically ties into Pietro and Bruno’s friendship. Instead of displacement, their lives constantly beckon them back to the mountains to meet time and again through the stages of their adulthood. A cabin they built in remembrance of Pietro’s adventurous father has an especially magnetic pull. The film takes us to different significant points – new job, girlfriends, travels, death in the family – and ties it back to the mountain as a place of reconciling these changes. Their friendship essentially acts as a balm of consistency in a life that never sits still.  

The Eight Mountains (Sundance Institute)
(Sundance Institute)

The Eight Mountains is unabashedly sentimental about its central characters. This is especially the case when it comes to how their lives become disrupted or dispiriting over time. Pietro, who narrates most of the film, cannot find any sense of purpose in life. He drifts through, having Bruno’s companionship as his only sense of stability. Bruno, almost opposite, becomes flustered with the restlessness of his domesticated life after marriage and kids. His ties to the land he grew up cultivating depend on a sense of solitude he can no longer claim. 

As a result, the framing of both characters becomes wildly contrasted. Long shots of Nepal capture Pietro on his frequent to the country. Meanwhile, Bruno seemingly towers over small spaces, caught in claustrophobic interior after claustrophobic interior. Backdropped with a bluegrass score that Groeningen has been fond of since his Oscar-nominated film The Broken Circle Breakdown, his latest film in co-direction with Vandermeersch gives a sweet and sour portrait of a friendship that bends and sways over time, but luckily, never breaks.

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