Tuesday, 27 September 2022

You Won't Be Alone (2022) - Movie Review

Whenever a film’s discourse involves comparisons between it and the works of Terence Malick, that’s a pretty big red flag that I shouldn’t be watching it. We don’t exactly have the best working relationship, let’s say.

But… well, it’s been nearly five years since that review. A lot has changed about my approach to film critique since then. I used to think quite poorly of ‘artsy-fartsy’ films, and I freely admit that I was one of many budding critics that overused the word ‘pretentious’ until it ceased to have any meaning. Nowadays, the more out-there features tend to be the ones I gravitate towards the most, and with how much I pontificate on the human condition in these reviews, I probably stopped calling things pretentious just so I could avoid being a complete hypocrite.

With all that in mind, I get the feeling that I’m getting closer to the point where I can actually start understanding Malick being lauded as one of the all-time great filmmakers. So I basically went into this film with that main comparison in mind and with a willingness to hear it out. Yeah, it might be a bit slow for my tastes, but who knows? Maybe it’ll finally click for me.

Or maybe it’ll just re-affirm that, even as a chronic navel-gazer, I still have limits.

The premise has some real high-concept pull to it, telling the story of a girl (Sara Klimoska’s Nevena) who is cursed by a shape-shifting witch (Anamaria Marinca’s Maria) to become one herself. After being mentored and then abandoned by Maria, Nevena goes through several different bodies and tries to live as fulfilling a life as she can, given the circumstances. It starts out a bit like Room, in how it shows Nevena being kept in a cave for sixteen years by her mother to keep her away from the witch, and then veers into some Titane-lite territory in how it shows Nevena continually changing herself try and get away from her past, but only encountering new problems. Even the method of shape-shifting has some body horror tones to it, with the ‘Wolf-Eatress’ needing to gruesomely tear apart someone, stuff bits of their flesh into the Wolf-Eatress’ chest, and through that turn into someone else.

As a look at ordinary life under the Balkan patriarchy, like an even more rustic version of Hive, it’s an interesting way of going about it… but it has some pretty glaring issues. Like how it seems to run out of observations to make really damn quickly. While there is some initial variety in the forms that Nevena takes, like animals and men, most of her forms are women. And what writer/director Goran Stolevski has to say (and more importantly show) about women isn’t all that great. We get a very vivid depiction, arguably too vivid, of the abuse and mistreatment Nevena goes through, which hits a lot of familiar points about the suppression of women’s agency and desires, but it also tries to show that life isn’t all bad with very little success. To me, this feels like someone explaining in excessive detail just how badly women are mistreated on an interpersonal and societal level, but then saying it all evens out because they get to have babies. Seems a bit shallow.

And yet that ends up being a minor footnote compared to an even greater misjudgement in the story department, which is going to require some explanation before we even get to it. So, Nevena is non-verbal thanks to the witch and she is also socially stunted from being in that cave all her life up to that point. Not only that, but her inner monologue is the driving narration for the story. Said narration is rather peculiar in its wordage and structure, but coming from someone who has had little to no social interaction her entire life, I can at least get why it sounds so off; it’s the world as articulated by a child’s vocabulary.

In essence, our main character has a developmental disorder. To that end, the title ends up feeling like a 'may you live in interesting times'-style curse, as her need to be with others is contrasted by how badly she is treated throughout. As someone who also has a developmental disorder and regularly struggles with the need to be open vs. the need to be safe in social interactions, reading Nevena’s character as autistic or at least neurodivergent makes sense to me.

Of course, that opens up a whole new array of problems, as this film’s handling of her character ranges from the bizarre to the genuinely questionable. For a start, there’s what Noomi Rapace brings to the film as one of Nevena’s assumed shapes. Watching her observe the other women in her village, trying to imitate them laughing with each other… how is it that I haven’t actually watched Sia’s Music, and yet I can still tell her facial expressions look exactly like something out of Sia’s Music? I can understand imitation as a means of better understanding social behaviour (hell, that’s basically what the entire film is about), but there had to have been a better way to get that across than going full crip-face. Never go full crip-face.

And then there’s where the disability-adjacent stuff overlaps with the film’s takes on sexuality, showing Nevena involved in not one but three different sex scenes with varying dubious levels of consent at play. One is just a rape scene, one is the result of coercion right out of an edgy boi's stand-up routine about the Make-A-Wish Foundation, and one is framed in a positive light but… again, considering the developmental delay and how infantilised Nevena is both written and performed, it raises uncomfortable questions about consent. Watching all this, I was reminded more than once of Siblings Of The Cape, and I never should be reminded of Siblings Of The Cape, especially by a film that seemingly stumbled into commenting on disability in the first place.

I know I should be getting more into the production values and the quality of the acting itself, and to Stolevski’s credit, the film looks and sounds really damn good, especially for a first-time feature. But considering how much I really don’t like the content on offer here, I fail to see why that even matters; a bad story doesn’t suddenly become good just because it’s written in cursive. While there’s some serious potential in its subject matter, and I admittedly like how it twists body horror and folk horror conventions to tell its story, the end result is underwhelming at best and legitimately offensive at worst.

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