Like that perfect sunset we may see only a handful of times in a lifetime, just as rare is experiencing a film that humbly stands out among genre-specific exercises. Not to knock those other films so much as to acquiesce to the fact that there are some good movies, some entertaining ones, and some not so much. But once in a while something comes along that tries to defy category and expectation AND actually succeeds. Such a film is You Won’t Be Alone, the stunning full-length debut by Australian/Macedonian writer-director Goran Stolevski.
Set in 19th century Macedonia, this dreamy/horror/folk-tale tells of a young feral girl (Nevena) whose speech as a newborn is taken away by an ancient witch Maria (Anamaria Marinca) and hidden away by her mother for 16 years – isolating her from the outside world. Promised to Maria by her mother in fear and in an effort to save her life, Nevena is “turned” unwillingly. With her mother gone, Nevena lives through the witch’s shadow and cruelty. But because of Nevena’s headstrong and curious nature, Maria abandons her to her own devices.
Realizing her ability to literally crawl into other people’s skin and live in another body, she experiences first-hand as a peasant woman the brutality of that world among men. But Nevena is determined to live a life in the community and in doing so reveals a humanity and empathy way beyond Maria’s grasp.
Because of its supernatural subject matter, it’s understandable to file You Won’t Be Alone as a horror film. On the outside, marketing materials would dress this along the lines of 2015 cult classic The Witch; a notable film that introduced us to the talents of Anya Taylor-Joy and Robert Eggers. But You Won’t Be Alone is so much more.
There is a surprising tenderness and truth to the performances and story thanks to Stolevski’s confident direction. A veteran of numerous short films in the festival circuit, Stolevski’s first feature uses a semi-documentary visual style that melds organic performances with an almost timeless sensibility. I was drawn into this Macedonian folk-tale as in a dream; seeing a set of events that could have taken place 200 years ago or in a more recent past.
Nevena is played by several standout actors as she changes from body to body. The most recognizable is Noomi Rapace who is excellent as usual. But just as excellent is Sara Klimoska as the real Nevena as well as Alice Englert and Carloto Cotta as her hosts. Anamaria Marinca is noteworthy as the witch Maria, giving the vengeful character believable tragic humanity.
Going in, I was expecting a stylish horror-thriller in the vein of The Witch or Under The Skin. Instead, defies the immediate categorization of most horror films of late. It’s really an engrossing coming-of-age film, poignant, with touches of magical realism, tragedy and humor, with lots to say about people, their tendencies for both kindness and brutality.
You Won’t Be Alone also postulates the notion that hatred is learned and not born. And that everyone deserves a chance to connect and live life to the fullest. Most of all, it tries to remind us of that simple human thought seemingly in dire supply these days: HOPE.
One of the best films of the year.
Review by Vince Caro