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Saturday, January 22, 2022

[Sundance Review] ‘You Won’t Be Alone’ Is a Sensory Examination of Humanity Through Witchy Folk Horror

Australian-Macedonian writer/director Goran Stolevski weaves a complex emotional tapestry of humanity in his period folk tale that wields horror as a vehicle. You Won’t Be Alone reframes life and its stages through the lens of a witch, creating a sensory experience that’s artful, languid meditation with a helping of blood and entrails.

In an isolated Macedonian mountain village in the 19th century, a woman goes about her daily chores until she discovers an old witch (Annamaria Marinca) standing over her baby. After pleading and a blood exchange, a bargain is struck, though the woman soon after attempts to hide the baby until she’s sixteen. The witch eventually returns to claim the sheltered teen Nevena (Sara Klimoska), transforming then abandoning her. The feral girl soon finds herself borrowing the skins of others, assuming their lives, and observing human behavior.

Almost like a series of vignettes that skip through some of life’s most important milestones, You Won’t Be Alone is a heady mood piece that can get a bit unwieldy in its most prolonged, quietest stretches. And there are many. Stolevski favors aesthetics over dialogue and a conventional narrative. Nevena grew up in a cave before being tossed old coldly into the world like a newborn. Her savage curiosity leads to harsh and primal lessons on life and death, as well as the cruel, superstitious world that created an ancient witch shaped in the first place.

Actors Noomi RapaceAlice Englert, and Carloto Cotta stand out as borrowed skins for the young witch to observe humanity firsthand. They provide emotion and introspection, a contrast to Nevena’s blank slate. They offer near silent contemplations on the tangible world around them. Nevena’s curiosity is insatiable; she explores childhood, sexuality, all genders, and ages. It’s often without purpose; Nevena’s explorations are impulsive and aimless.

Stolevski successfully creates a stunning mood piece that makes its profound emotions felt and the world tactile and textured. He captures the beauty without shying away from the harsh and ugly. It’s an impressive debut with a firm grasp on visuals and tone, but it’s also glacial in pacing and without easy footholds into Nevena’s journey.

You Won’t Be Alone makes for a strange, almost otherworldly folk tale. There’s no real narrative to anchor audiences; it’s a listless drift through lives and moments. Its enchanting spell ebbs and flows, depending on the skin Nevena claws for herself, sometimes by complete accident. All of it makes for a poignant and immersive sensory experience, but one that’s incohesive and unhurried. Stolevski doesn’t quite stick the landing of his circle of life metaphor, but there’s enough artistic merit and splendor to impress those with more avant-garde and adventurous tastes.

You Won’t Be Alone releases in theaters on April 1, 2022.


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