9/10 You Won’t Be Alone made a little more than a quarter million in theaters, but what’s the point of writing about movies all the time if I’m not going to make time for one of the year’s best pictures. This is a breathtaking masterpiece of humanity, folklore and personal history.
Macedonia, 19th Century- A shape-shifting witch referred to as a “wolf-eatress” called Old Maid Maria (Anamaria Marinca) comes for a newborn baby, but her desperate mother promises to give the child over to the witch a 16-year-old virgin so that Maria won’t be alone in her old age in exchange for being allowed to raise her for that time. Maria marks the baby, breaking her mouth and leaving her apparently mute for the rest of her life.
The mother tries her best to go back on their deal, raising Nevena in a hidden cave that she seems to think is holy ground, but 16 years later, Maria kills her and takes her daughter. Maria transforms Nevena into a witch, something she says she can only do once, but is immediately disappointed in the naïve, uneducated and non-verbal teenager and leaves her to fend for herself. Nevena (Sara Klimoska, Noomi Rapace, Carloto Cotta and Alice Englert) uses her new shapeshifting powers to sample lives across the preindustrial land, a blank slate thrust into the world already sexually mature, learning how to be human.
The first thing to notice about You Won’t Be Alone is its language, Macedonian. Writer/director Goran Stolevski, an Australian-Macedonian, apparently drew from real folklore and researched a period-accurate dialect of the language, going out to Serbia to shoot and recreating rural communities on the side of the mountain. There’s a great deal of authenticity and personality to this film just from its elements.
Almost all of the dialogue is Nevena’s internal monologue, and she thinks like a person who doesn’t know how to speak would think – a stream of words in apparently the wrong order. That could be a deliberate mistranslation or transliteration of grammatical quirks in Macedonian, I can’t really know, but it’s something that immediately separates the experience of watching You Won’t Be Alone.
The Focus Features-distributed You Won’t Be Alone is another twist in the evolution of the A24 folk horror genre, a string of quiet, slow horror films that’s so particular and has become so associated with the A24 studio that similarly styled movies from other distributors are also linked. We’ve already seen Lamb, in which generally resembling the tone of The Witch, the 2016 film usually seen as the parent of the genre, was the only appeal. You Won’t Be Alone, on the other hand, is a full and specific inversion of The Witch – instead of a girl souring on her hopelessly Puritan family and teaming up with Black Phillip, we now see a girl who’s been kept from humanity turned into a witch without informed consent learning about families as an outside observer.
Matthew Chuang’s almost completely handheld cinematography is wobbly and exploratory, capturing the magic of seeing the world with fresh eyes. Everything looks new – daylight is just a little bit brighter, the grass is just a little bit greener than seems possible.
The Witch gives us an early glimpse of the titular spellcaster bathing in an infant’s blood, and You Won’t Be Alone gives us more than a glimpse. Maria and Nevena shapeshift by consuming a creature’s wet, pink, rubbery intestines, and they resume form by pulling those same intestines out of a new orifice in their chest cavity just above the heart. This process is shown often enough and in graphic enough detail that I can describe it to you.
Nevena spends time as a preyed-upon teenager, a woman in an abusive marriage, a young man working as part of a community and finally as a young girl again, living out the childhood she was denied and growing back into a young woman. This alien survey of preindustrial humanity produces a look at society without modern preoccupations, concerned only with producing the next meal, superstitions and fucking. There are about a dozen sex scenes in You Won’t Be Alone as Nevena’s crash course in sexuality is a major part of her journey, not always pleasant, but she finds herself eventually. The prominence of sex in her mind, as a pastime and a communication tool, and how it shapes her experience is what makes the film feel so honest. In so many biopics or other movies that cover a person’s entire life, sexuality is reduced to meet-cutes and breakup scenes. The daily drive for companionship and self-expression is packed into another character and glossed over.
Nevena’s sexuality is also more honest in that it expands far beyond her relationships. Like a toddler, she’s obsessed with her own mouth and tries to put just about everything in it, and this is just as overtly erotic as it sounds. She seeks pleasure, or just sensation. She looks for ways to enjoy being alive. The depth of this search really rounds into form during her time as a man as she explores not just male genitals but the entire male body, as well as what is and isn’t acceptable for her to do with that body.
Nevena samples gender identities over the course of her journey, and You Won’t Be Alone becomes an extremely queer film as she experiences not just sex as both women and men, but day-to-day life in an extremely gendered society. It’s a great roadmap for understanding gender as a spectrum, drawing the connections and distinctions between social roles, expression and identity and also delving into how rigid gender ideas can force a mold onto characters.
There’s a even “coming out” moment late in the film when Nevena reveals herself as a witch to her husband, nervously showing him the claws she’d used to kill other men as they were raping her, and he giggles and keeps drilling her. Since this takes place during sex, it’s a wonderful, private cinematic moment of Nevena revealing her deepest self and being accepted in a full and romantic way.
You Won’t Be Alone is a magnificent, honest and shameless navigation of being alive, deeply personal yet universal, hauntingly beautiful yet frank and grotesque. It’s currently available on Peacock premium.