You Won’t Be Alone is both a poetic fantasy story and a searing investigation of what it means to be human. It’s emotionally wrenching and also frequently gory. Following its premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, the film debuts in theaters April 1, and anyone looking for a mind-expanding cinematic experience is highly encouraged to seek it out.
The feature debut of writer-director Goran Stolevski, You Won’t Be Alone is set in 19th century Macedonia, in a sun-dappled stretch of countryside home to small villages, farms, vast forests, and folklore that has a way of bleeding from stories told around the campfire into real life. Everyone’s heard of Old Maid Maria (Invasion’s Anamaria Marinca), a witch imbued with a “Wolf-Eateress” spirit who lurks among the trees, occasionally emerging with her hideously burn-scarred visage on display. Early in the film, she appears in the home of a woman with a newborn daughter, and the frantic mother agrees to hand over the girl once she’s of age; to mark her, the hag claws out the infant’s vocal chords. Mute (though we hear her voice thanks to a dreamy, stream-of-conscious voiceover that runs throughout the film) and nearly feral after being raised in a cave, young Nevena (Sara Klimoska) meets her fate when the witch comes to collect, and we soon realize the teen has been transformed into the same sort of blood-drinking, razor-claw-fingernail-having immortal creature as Maria.
The similarity ends there, however. Maria exists in a constant state of bitterness, scolding her protégé with such cruelty (“What a waste you are!”) that the girl actually longs for the birth mother that kept her hidden away for 16 years. Nevena regards the world with wonder, a curiosity that only intensifies once she starts observing the humans that populate it. Maria and Nevena don’t have typical witch powers—there’s no spell-casting, for instance—but they both have the ability to shape-shift, a process the film depicts both graphically and mysteriously. Basically, the witches can rip out human organs and shove them into their own bodies, thereby magically taking on the appearance of the deceased person. Because Nevena can’t speak, the human that she transforms into also loses the ability to speak, adding just one more layer of weirdness for anyone who thinks they’re interacting with a person they’ve known all their life, not realizing that person is now a witch wearing human skin.
As Nevena tries on different skin-suits—including that of an abused wife played by Lamb’s Noomi Rapace—the audience gets the unique experience of seeing the same character portrayed by different actors of different ages and genders. Nevena’s rambling voice-over, buoyed by Mark Bradshaw’s exquisite score, becomes more coherent as the film progresses (“What isn’t strange, when you think about it?” she muses), and her observations about the communities she infiltrates, particularly about the differences between men and women, are as incisive as they are poignant: “It’s a burning, hurting thing, this world... a biting, wrenching thing.”
As it turns out, the copious amounts of entrails involved aren’t the only unpleasant parts of this journey of self-discovery; every time Nevena seems to be finding her footing—even experiencing happiness and contentment for the first time—Maria pops back up to remind her that she’s a fraud who’ll be punished when, not if, someone figures out the truth. Marinca’s fierce performance as this often hateful character is balanced by an undercurrent of melancholy, something that’s illuminated to great effect when Stolevski weaves the Wolf-Eateress’ own tragic backstory into the narrative.
You Won’t Be Alone isn’t a horror movie in the traditional sense; it’s got gruesome elements but is also a sensitive coming-of-age story that sees the ultimate outsider fumbling around to discover her place in the world. Despite a narrative that’s often bleak, it finds room for pockets of wry humor and even flashes of beauty—and in that way, it’s a lot like the thing it’s most fascinated with throughout: human life itself.
You Won’t Be Alone will be released April 1.
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