Updated: Dec 4, 2021
Dubbed as a 'post-Brexit love story', The Drifters treads some interesting ground in its exploration of place, identity, and the need to belong. The film tells the story of Koffee (Jonathan Ajayi), an African immigrant working in a carwash, and Fanny (Lucie Bourdeu), a French waitress, who meet while taking English language classes in London. The two share an obvious attraction and, after being paired together for an awkward role-play exercise, embark upon a whirlwind romance which leads to an impromptu holiday on the South Devon Coast. It's here, in this seemingly idyllic setting, that everything catches up with them and their dream-like existence is called into question.
Koffee's journey from Africa is only alluded to, but it's taken him through Europe and across treacherous waters, in search of a better life. Prior to Brexit, the United Kingdom - and particularly London - presented that kind of option, but in this post-Brexit landscape a lot of that appeal has been lost. This is covered early in the film when Koffee is offered a side job (seemingly a smash-and-grab) by his manager, in exchange for an Irish passport picturing someone who 'looks like him'. He takes on the job with a fellow worker, who ends up being the one grabbed, then decides to run away with both the passport and the money. Unsure of where to go, he invites Fanny to join him on this literal seaside getaway.
Fanny is going through issues of her own, and is still trying to find her place in the world. Abused at a young age by her stepfather, she left home and never looked back. Her search for a better life has also brought her to London, living in the apartment of a separated French businessman, and it's implied that she's learned how to channel her sexuality to get what she wants. She has a naturally flirtatious, yet contrary nature, but those facades fade away when it comes to Koffee. Their relationship is almost chaste - resulting in nine dates before she even considers them to be together - which makes their love story all the more tender. It's a whirlwind, and it's intense, but it's not without feeling.
Director Benjamin Bond wears his influences on his sleeve, and proudly plays homage to them over the course of the film. There's a definite nod to French New Wave cinema - with obvious references to Jean-Luc Godard films such as À Bout de Souffle (Breathless), as well as lesser known gems like Bande à part (Band of Outsiders) and La Chinoise - and there's a definite line that can be drawn from the relationship between Fanny and Koffee in The Drifters to the one shared by Patricia and Michel in Breathless. Both films follow a path of crime and betrayal, with the protagonists' actions eventually catching up with them.
There also seems to be a strong influence from the generation of directors such as Russell Mulcahy and David Fincher, who cut their teeth on music videos before bringing that aesthetic to the cinema. I guess that would make sense given Bond's background as a Producer for BBC Radio 1, along with his contributions to the film, Killing Bono. That would also account for the influence of '90s indie cinema, which is particularly noted by the repeated references (and visual homages) to Quentin Tarantino. It's Fanny's dream to move to America and star in a Tarantino film (they met while he was filming Inglourious Basterds in France) and it's this shared fantasy which fuels Fanny and Koffee's imaginations.
As the action shifts to the seaside town of Teignmouth on the South Devon Coast, we start to see the impact of Brexit on the local populace. Despite being filmed in 2019, The Drifters is surprisingly prescient about the role of fishing in the negotiations. I guess they were already one of the sticking points at the time, but viewing the film through the lens of today makes it even more powerful. While living out their 'English fantasy', Koffee and Fanny befriend a local boy, Leon (Tom Sweet), who offers to show them around the town. Leon's father is a down-on-his-luck fisherman, Chris (Jonjo O'Neill), who still proudly flies his 'Fishing For Leave' flag on his (mostly) docked vessel. He's already feeling the effects of the Brexit vote but, for those of us today, we know it's going to get much worse.
Despite his poor choices and political opinions, Chris isn't a completely irredeemable character, which goes to show these things aren't always black-and-white. He proves to be a friend (of sorts) to Koffee and Fanny, despite their differences, and it's nice to see that ambiguity on display. For a lot of people, they were simply mis-sold a bill of goods, but it's a consequence they'll live with for the rest of their lives. Nonetheless, things aren't so clear-cut in this town which is shown (a little heavy-handedly) with its English flags waving on the high street as the predominantly white populace move about. This is post-Brexit Britain and, for better or worse, these are the people who helped make it happen. Ironically, Chris himself is a transplant from Northern Ireland, so he should know better.
Jonathan Ajayi and Lucie Bourdeu make for charismatic and attractive leads, which is important as so much of this film hinges on them. Ajayi, in particular, has a wonderful screen presence, and I look forward to seeing what he does next. That's the real strength of The Drifters ... Outside of presenting some thought-provoking material beneath the veneer of a cool aesthetic, it introduces viewers to a talented cast and an interesting new director, who are all worthy of following. Although not a perfect film, The Drifters shows promise for what's to come - even if it's just in the careers of its principals, and not the world their characters inhabit.
The Drifters is currently streaming on Modern Films, in support of the distributor and your local independent cinema (I'd recommend Ciné Lumière at the Institut Francais), and is available digitally on-demand via the usual channels.