Yet another debut feature that premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival was “You Won’t Be Alone” from Goran Stolevski. The Australian-Macedonian writer-director has over 25 short films to his credit, and here he brings a unique and fresh twist to the familiar witch story. His folk horror concept is intriguing. His visual style is stunning. And at different times his film can be both chilling and beautiful. If only it played as well as it sounds.
Snatched up by Focus Features prior to the festival, “You Won’t Be Alone” is already slated for an April 1st release. It will be interesting to see the reactions considering how shockingly gruesome it can be. Yet it can also be quiet and soothing, with the meditative rhythm and visual sensibility of a Malick film. It fully embraces the ghoulish and grotesque, while also taking an often tender and poignant look at what it means to be human. Unfortunately, certain indulgences keep it from seamlessly combining those two extremes.
Set in a remote mountain village in 19th century Macedonia, the story begins on an disturbing note. A mother finds a hideously scarred crone (Anamaria Marinca) hovering over her newborn baby’s crib. Legend says she’s a shape-shifting witch known as the Wolf-Eateress. Others in the village refer to her as Old Maid Maria. The mother breaks down and begs the ghastly woman not to take her child. The two come to an agreement – the mother can raise her daughter until she turns 16. At that point the crone will return and take the girl for her own. But before leaving the old woman leaves her mark on the child (not an easy watch).
The mother takes her daughter to a sacred cave in the mountains. Her motives are good – hide and protect her daughter (named Nevena) from the witch. But by raising her in such stark isolation, Nevena has no understanding of the real world when Maria inevitably finds her. The old maid takes her prize to the forest and endows Nevena (now played by Sarah Klimoska) with her shape-shifting ability. But Nevena’s childlike and open-hearted curiosity infuriates Maria who casts out the young witch. Alone, Nevena wanders into the nearby village where the movie’s bigger interests unfold.
To say much more would be a disservice, but broadly speaking, Nevena begins (rather gruesomely) inhabiting the bodies of villagers. And with each new person she inhabits, she gets a new perspective on the world. It’s a captivating conceit – living and experiencing humanity through the bodies (and in turn the experiences) of others. It gives Nevena the opportunity to see both the ugliness and the beauty of the human condition. It also allows Stolevski to explore a number of social themes that are still relevant today.
In addition to Klimoska (Macedonia), Stolevski puts together a well-tuned international group to play the witch’s different incarnations. Noomi Rapace (Sweden) plays an abused wife who vividly portraying the travails of women, Carloto Cotta (Portugal) is a handsome village beefcake who embodies patriarchal privilege, and Alice Englert (Australia) as a sweet innocent little girl who allows Nevena a taste of the childhood she never had. Each offer moments of insight and challenge many modern-day norms despite being set in the 1800s.
While the film impresses with its surprising amount of emotional depth, some of the more practical things aren’t as convincing. Take Nevena’s strangely eloquent internal monologue which doesn’t exactly ring true considering all her time spent disconnected and in isolation. She was barely a step above a feral child when Maria found her and took her away. Yet the mellifluous and poetic flow of thoughts in Nevena’s mind at times sound like the words of a seasoned lyricist rather than a wild and untamed girl. Perhaps it’s meant to simply convey feeling, but it doesn’t come across that way.
There’s also Maria’s appearance which too often looks like a rubber suit and thick makeup. It’s unquestionably a reflection of the film’s budget, but it also keeps Maria from being as visually forbidding as she could be. But that’s okay because it’s her backstory that’s most haunting. As is often the case in stories like this, the history behind Maria’s scars are both horrifying and tragic, and Stolevski brings it to light with unsettling clarity.
With “You Won’t Be Alone” Goran Stolevski has created something that defies categorization. He brings with him an undeniably artful vision and a truly thoughtful mind. Along with it comes a few needless excesses, such as the sometimes weird and almost obsessive way he uses sex and gore. But beyond that is movie of impeccable craft. An arthouse drama with a folk horror veneer that doesn’t reach every mark it’s going for. But at least it’s reaching for something.