A witch tries to fit in with humanity in gory debut feature You Won’t Be Alone
In the mountains of 19th century Macedonia, a desperate woman makes a deal with a witch who wants to eat her infant daughter Nevena – offering to hand the girl over willingly if the witch will wait until she is 16 years old. In an effort to renege on the deal and keep her daughter safe the mother raises her locked away from all other human contact in an isolated cave, but hiding is not enough, as eventually the witch arrives to seize the child with bloody consequences.
Whilst the witch (who we come to know as Maria) transforms the girl into one of her own kind and hopes to raise her as her apprentice and successor, Nevena is soft hearted and has different ideas. After living a life in isolation, she is desperate to experience the world and connect with humanity. With the gruesome power to shapeshift – at the cost of a few murders – she starts to impersonate different members of the local village and tries to live among them. You Won’t Be Alone is the debut feature from Macedonian-Australian film maker Goran Stolevski and is reviewed here as part of the BFI London Film Festival.
A multifaceted film that is hard to categorise, You Won’t Be Alone is being vaguely marketed as a horror but watches like more of a traditional Grimm Brothers spooky folktale. Stolevski borrows from real folk stories from his homeland, where witches are something like a cross between werewolves and shapeshifters who lure unsuspecting victims out of their homes to snatch them away. It’s brutally gory in places, sometimes shocking, but not outright scary. It could sit easily alongside the modern woodsy folk horror renaissance (see The Witch, Midsommar, Men) but masterfully manages to transcend its monstrous premise to become something much more human.
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Watching Nevena escape her confinement to experience the world for the first time is a powerful experience, at times joyful, confusing, exhilarating. Scenes in nature are shot with a reverence that is reminiscent of Terence Malick, the young woman reveling in lush mountains, babbling streams and bountiful farm land. The sound design pairs perfectly, the soft score giving way to the sound of birdsong and leaves crunching underfoot. It sets the environment as something comforting, a safe green place that contrasts the darkness so often seen in traditional horror.
It is in its humanity that You Won’t Be Alone finds its darkness. With themes reminiscent of Frankenstein’s monster, all the witches want is to find love and human connection, but society keeps letting them down. As she impersonates a series of women, then a man and finally a child, Nevena gets to experience different aspects of family and community relationships
. Stolevski brilliantly uses the perspective of an almost alien outsider to look at gender roles and misogyny within this society, as Nevena lays out the rules for being around the women and how they differ from being around the men in childlike language – it’s astutely observed. As she experiences the world in different bodies, she experiences the gamut of human existence, violence and abject cruelty, but also comfort, tenderness and love.
An excellent cast captures the journey of the young witch learning to be human, but it’s Noomi Rapace who has the stand out segment when Nevena takes on the body Bosilka. Starting out as a raw, primal creature we watch her mimic the expressions of those around her to try and fit in. It’s masterfully acted and oddly reminiscent of something from sci fi. For all her brutality she is funny and charming, a child playing at being a grown up. Watching her learn about the struggles of her gender is heartbreaking and sets up a satisfying arc for the character as she figures out her place in this world.
You Won’t Be Alone is a remarkable achievement and exciting debut from director Goran Stolevski. At times viscerally horrifying whilst still managing to be a delicate musing on what it means to be human, it’s something truly unique.
You Won’t Be Alone will be available to rent and own on digital platforms from 20th October 2022