Review: ‘You Won’t Be Alone’ (a skin-walker’s tale)

A witch’s work is never done.

When a Wolf-Eateress known as Old Maid Maria (Anamaria Marinca) appears, a peasant woman strikes a bargain to stop the witch from stealing her newborn daughter, pledging the girl at sixteen years old “to spare the witch the burden of raising the child.” The peasant woman secludes her daughter away in an abandoned sanctuary for all the promised years, believing it to be holy ground safe from evil. Undeterred at the agreed upon time, the witch liberates her prize: Nevena (Sara Klimoska), a young woman only too happy to leave her cavern prison. Maria gifts Nevena with the powers of a Wolf-Eateress, but instead of an eager pupil, the girl is too enamored with a world she’s never known, acting out against her perceived rescuer when pressed for obedience. Abandoned for her defiance, Nevena encounters a village and uses witchery to assume the identities of the dead (Noomi Rapace, Carlotto Cotta, Alice Englert), in each gaining an education in the wonders and horrors of the world… but Old Maid Maria is never too far away to remind the foolish apprentice she is no longer one of them.

Opening upon a feline foraging in a meadow moments before it runs off-screen, fans of folklore may already be smiling at the cat’s sudden reappearance dashing off in the opposite direction. It’s a welcome attempt by Macedonia-born writer/director Goran Stolevski to alter a Brothers Grimm fairy tale setup into something telling and affecting about the human condition from a unique, almost alien point-of-view. He additionally inflicts his protagonist with an inability to speak, inspiring a poetic narration of inner thought (spoken by Sara Klimoska) by someone with a limited vocabulary, but it’s also a tell whenever a villager is “struck dumb” after encountering the young witch. Set in an patriarchal 19th-century Balkan village where surviving day-to-day is its own challenge, can audiences endure subtitles, dire character circumstances, and the occasional “oh, that was a flashback” to appreciate the film for the introspection it offers?

While inviting comparison to newer folklore films like The VVitch and Lamb, Alone eerily invokes the trappings of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” — shape-changing and witches and lost voices, oh my! Each life taken and experienced follows similar beats of awkwardness and interest, each culminating in Witch Maria reappearing to chide Nevena over her failures. The episodes build toward a payoff and coming-of-age revelation, enduring a sort of reincarnation until each lesson is learned. It may be pure coincidence Sony pushed back Marvel’s Morbius to the same release date, but if audiences watch only one movie about shapeshifting blood drinkers this year, You Won’t Be Alone should be it: a story about discovering one’s humanity instead of losing it to the MCU.

The choices Nevena makes are without malice — especially the need for a death to enact her true power — retaining her innocence while also empowered not to suffer fools. If a modern middle-aged person were abruptly blessed to transform into any living creature for as long as they like, they could explore the world soaring the skies or swim beneath the waves; why be human at all? In contrast, Nevena seeks only her own understanding, to be part of and succeed in a world she was denied in her youth. Having power affords her a unique perspective as only an immortal can appreciate, and that’s the single misstep in Stolevski’s narrative: Nevena is a participant in humanity because she chooses to be, not because she must; fortunately for those she encounters, she remains empathetic to their fragility in remembering her own.

Stocked with practical stage effects, makeup, and the willingness to use gore as appropriate, the film unapologetically leans into its material; a bigger production budget could have smoothed over the lackluster CGI effects. Details of the plot contain rape, abuse, neglect, and betrayal that are intentionally uncomfortable to watch, but the commitment by the actors is genuine along with themes regarding female power, transgender exploration, and evil being a choice. By the end, the film accomplishes what the best monster movies often do: ask viewers to question who the monsters actually are.

You Won’t Be Alone is rated R for violence and gore, sexual content, graphic nudity, sexual assault, and understanding when the use of power is appropriate.

Three skull recommendation out of four

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