Don’t mistake the title of Goran Stolevski’s Sundance 2022 feature debut, You Won’t Be Alone, as a reassurance. Until the very end, his protagonist is utterly alone, even while in the company of others. And she happens to be a skin-stealing bogeyman. But that shouldn’t be an obstacle for mercy.
Sympathetic monsters are a staple of horror cinema, from the films of Guillermo del Toro – literally, all his films – to a handful of names from Universal’s classic monster stable: Frankenstein’s monster, the Phantom, the wolfman. You Won’t Be Alone shares the same space as these movies and others by marrying starkest dread with abiding compassion.
There’s blood and gore to spare, too, which comes with the territory. You can’t make an omelet without a few breaking eggs, and you can’t appropriate a stranger’s body without leaving a heap of guts in the dirt. This is a lesson Nevena (Sara Klimoska) learns early as a “Wolf Eateress”: A shape-changing witch prowling remote foothills for victims in 19th century Macedonia.
It isn’t her fault. She wasn’t born a witch. In her infancy, she was marked as a witch by Maria (Anamaria Marinca), an amoral crone covered from head to toe in third-degree burns. On reaching teenhood, Maria collects Nevena from her home and takes her out in the world to instruct her on survival, mostly a matter of slurping viscera from woodland animals while avoiding human contact.
Stolevski neglects to clarify Maria’s intentions for Nevena as they don’t really matter, and the two are separated before long. Nevena’s curiosity draws her toward civilization and compels her to take other people's forms in her attempt to learn how to be human. Noomi Rapace graces You Won’t Be Alone’s poster and promotional images as the film’s most recognizable star; she’s also the first person Nevena meets, kills, and possesses.
The director structures his narrative around that dynamic as if Nevena’s passing a baton between her hosts in a relay race to understand what she’s missed out on as a victim in Maria’s designs. First, new mother Bosilka (Rapace); second, strapping young Boris (Carloto Cotta); third, Biliana, played first by Anastasija Karanovich as a child, then Alice Englert.
Time isn’t a massive factor for Stolevski. Whether Nevena spends months or weeks posing as Bosilka and Boris is questionable, but neither are as formative to her gradual comprehension of what being “human” really means. You Won’t Be Alone doesn’t elide the awful truth that for Nevena to learn, others must die. But that brutal process is necessary to emphasize the movie’s central ideas: Life is unforgiving, and staying alive in an unforgiving world is a gamble.
Reactions to You Won’t Be Alone will inevitably describe Stoveski’s aesthetic as indebted to Terrence Malick. For generosity’s sake, the comparison has merit, though Cristian Mungiu, specifically his 2012 masterpiece Beyond the Hills, is a better reference point. You Won’t Be Alone tackles grand philosophical questions about the human condition against a rolling pastoral backdrop: foothills, woodlands, and wide-open fields nestled in the context of a bygone foreign age. The camera, guided by cinematographer Matthew Chuang, freely gambols through these settings, holding still only to capture moments of violence or carnal relations.
You Won’t Be Alone is often staggeringly beautiful.
There’s as much sex in You Won’t Be Alone as slaying, perhaps more. It’s a balance Stolevksi strikes to express the fullest scope of human experience. To be human is painful and joyful. That thesis statement is made by Stolevski and proven by his cast, who collectively have the monumental task of creating one cohesive character from a quartet of performances. They’re all Nevena, and they act accordingly, save for Englert. Hers is arguably the most conventional performance, but she throws herself so entirely into Biliana that she’s unrecognizable as someone totally at ease with peasant life’s rigors.
Meanwhile, Klimoska, Rapace, and Cotta communicate coltishness, a stiff uncertainty over everything from how they move to how they interact with the movie’s supporting cast. Chores, eating, walking, talking; it’s all new to their characters.
Watching these actors react in childlike wonder and confusion to whatever they’re doing on screen is the heart of You Won’t Be Alone, and Stolevski has Chuang go for tight coverage on his actors more often than not. The movie keeps its audience firmly anchored into Nevena, Bosilka, Boris, and Biliana’s perspectives, with a healthy application of wide shots for breathtaking scenic effect.
You Won’t Be Alone is often staggeringly beautiful. Great direction is getting one joint performance out of four actors but also knowing where to put the camera. There’s something to be said for a horror film that lovingly photographs awesome country vistas before casually decorating them with intestines and other organs. But there’s something to be said for restraint, too. Stolevski chooses his moments wisely for horror, awe, and kindness, hitting impressive equilibrium between each.
You Won’t Be Alone walks a tonal tightrope. A single misstep and the film tumbles into the realm of “elevated horror,” where the macabre pleasures we seek from the genre are denied us. Stolevski studiously avoids that obnoxious pretense and elevates You Won’t Be Alone simply by being a good filmmaker, aided by a good cast who are all working in concert toward the same point.
Being human isn’t easy. Nor is being a monster. Straddling a line between both is practically impossible. Maria pops up now and again to mock Nevena for trying, like rubbing salt in a wound. Maria gets her jollies from maiming babies, and somehow her mockery is her most sadistic quality. Nevena is alone. Miraculously, You Won’t Be Alone makes us hope against hope that one day, she won’t be. Spare some sympathy for the monster.
You Won’t Be Alone arrives in theaters on April 1, 2022.