This review is part of our coverage of the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.
The Pitch: In 19th-century Macedonia, a young girl is born to a woman in a remote mountain village. But mere days after her birth, the mother is approached by Old Maid Maria (Anamaria Marinca), a mysterious, ancient witch — covered in flame-scarred skin — who lives outside the village and takes the blood of first-born children. Fearing for her child’s life, the mother takes her to a remote mountain cavern free from the witch’s influence, keeping her there for sixteen years without any other human contact.
Eventually, the witch comes for her anyway, and soon the girl is transformed into a witch-creature like her, living under yet another stifling parental environment. Before long, she’s left to wander the Macedonian mountains by herself, with nary an idea of how to interact with other people. Soon enough, she accidentally kills a villager with her powers and learns to take the skin of others and live among them.
Before long, the girl embarks on a journey of self-discovery, trying on different skins (literally) to discover who she truly is and how she fits into the broader world that’s been stolen from her.
Parallel Mothers: In the opening shot of Goran Stolevski’s You Won’t Be Alone, a cat wanders into frame, surrounded by the bucolic hills and grazing sheep of the Macedonian hills. Then it jumps out of frame, and we hear yowling, crunching, flesh ripping; the same cat wanders back into our field of vision. Something has consumed it and taken its skin for its own.
It won’t be the last time a life will be snuffed out, stolen, and reused in You Won’t Be Alone, a film as much about the mortifying cycles of life and death as it is humanity’s feeble but noble attempts to craft meaning from that cruelty. The film, of course, takes inspiration from Macedonian folklore, tales of witches who can change their skin and steal your children. But Stolevski turns that conceit on its head, viewing humanity from the lens of the creatures who live on its periphery and are simultaneously hunter and hunted.
The vehicle for that exploration, of course, is our protagonist, a Nell-like feral girl cut off from civilization and left to rediscover it. In its early stretches, she (we’ll call her Nevena for now since that’s the name her birth mother gives her, though she’ll take others by film’s end) is beholden to strict maternal figures who fear the world’s impact on her. Her birth mother hides her away in a cave; when that fails, her “witch-mama” instructs her to think of other creatures — including people — as “blood, not playthings.”
Under the Skin: But Nevena wonders if there’s more than this provincial life, and after breaking with her capricious witch mother, she begins to insinuate herself back into the village from which she disappeared — using her powers to kill, then impersonate, various people along the way.
As such, You Won’t Be Alone tracks its protagonist over several different performers, all of whom contribute to a fascinatingly aggregate performance, full of gesture and wonder. After all, once in their bodies, Neneva is still unmistakably her: virtually wordless (the villagers posit each time that they’ve been struck dumb by falling rocks or other ailment), wide-eyed, curious about every little thing.
Whether as the mother of a newborn (Noomi Rapace), an eight-year-old girl, or — most subtextually interesting — a young man (Carloto Cotta), the ensemble as a whole keep Nevena’s childlike curiosity at the forefront of their sensory explorations. And that journey takes her along a broad spectrum of life experiences across age, gender, motherhood, and sexuality, an exploration that may find purchase with no small number of queer and trans people.
Horror’s long been a convenient vehicle with which to sympathize with the abject, the outsider; You Won’t Be Alone warps that journey more explicitly, giving the sheltered Nevena the opportunity to find herself through the transgressive delights of sexuality and transition.
A Hidden Life: But for all the oozing blood, bone-crunching sound design, and haunting imagery, You Won’t Be Alone uses its folkloric framework to explore our connections to each other and the world around us.
This comes courtesy of Matthew Chuang’s crisp, claustrophobic 1.66:1 photography, filled with unnerving closeups contrasted with wide, verdant hills and towering mountains. There’s no small amount of Terrence Malick in the film’s DNA — the dreamlike editing, poetic voiceover from a waifish protagonist, the elegaic orchestral score.
So, too, does Stolevski have a macro view of humanity through his witch’s eye: like Nevena, we’re witness to the simple beauty and violence of human existence. Through her experiences, we get to feel the sublime perfection of new life being born, but we also see the crestfallen horror of a young girl slipping and falling to her death on the rocks. The women of the village are resigned to a life of modest pleasures and the impulses of their men, and the horrific burden motherhood can inflict on anyone who yearns for it.
(Old Maid Maria is hardly immune to this, as her devolution comes courtesy of her own desires for a child and a purpose.)
The Verdict: With its painterly, brutal beauty and folk-horror underpinnings, it’s tempting to dismiss Stolevski’s You Won’t Be Alone as “Terrence Malick’s The VVitch.” But it’s so much more than that, a devastating yet highly-attuned exploration of the brutality of the world, and our yearning for identity and connection to protect us from nature’s capriciousness.
It’s one of the most intriguing genre movies of the year so far, and one that it’ll likely take multiple viewings to traverse its vast philosophical underpinnings.
Where’s It Playing? You Won’t Be Alone is streaming now on Peacock.