You Won't Be Alone Review: A Poetic, But Far Too Derivative Bit Of Folk Horror [Sundance 2022]

The earthy, messy, bloody machine of folk horror is hard at work in "You Won't Be Alone," Goran Stolevski's strange, languid tale of a preternatural being exploring the secrets of humanity. Full of lush landscapes low angles, and an overload of poetic narration, it's impossible to watch this film and not immediately think of the work of Terrence Malick. And that's not exactly a compliment. Malick's penchant for nature and voice-over is easy to mimic, but hard to pull off. Many have tried, but in truth, Malick and Malick alone is the one who best knows how to use this style. Everyone else is just imitating, and not doing a great job of it. 

Imitation is a serious issue with "You Won't Be Alone." Folk horror is, by its nature, loaded with familiarity. The term alone immediately conjures up a certain kind of imagery, where woodlands stretch outward and flesh is destined to rot. Almost all art borrows from what came before it. The problem is that "You Won't Be Alone" is a film about identity that doesn't have an identity of its own. It is far too indebted to other films — specifically films like "The Witch," "Under the Skin," and Malick movies like "The New World" and "A Hidden Life." Nearly every scene here reminds you of scenes from films before, and in almost every instance, those other films are better. 

Set in 19th-century Macedonia, "You Won't Be Alone" begins like many folk horror stories: with a witch. A badly burned figure known as Old Maid Maria (Anamaria Marinca) appears one day in a hovel where a mother lives with her screaming baby. Maria wants the baby to herself, but the terrified mother makes a desperate plea: she'll hand the baby, a little girl, over to Maria after a few years — after the baby has at least had a chance to grow into a young woman. Maria seems to agree and takes her leave ... at which point the mother immediately scoops up her newborn and hides her away in a cave. 


Years pass, and the baby, named Nevena, grows into a teenager (played by Sara Klimoska). She's spent her entire life in that cave, and to say the situation has stunted her development is an understatement. Fitted with hideous, rotten teeth, Klimoska plays the teen Nevena as a feral figure, unable to even walk upright, and almost completely lacking in language skills — she narrates the film with strange, broken words; a kind of cobbled-together language that reminds one of the way Jodie Foster spoke in the film "Nell." "Me, am I devils?" Nevena asks at one point, and that's just a small example of the unsophisticated way she uses words. 

Despite being tucked away in a cave for years, Nevena has not been forgotten by Old Maid Maria, and sure enough, the witch comes calling one day, taking the young girl out of the cave and transforming her into something else. She still looks like Nevena, at first. But she now has the ability to transform into other people. This isn't a simple bit of body-swapping, though. Nevena can seemingly only transform into someone who is dead, and on several occasions, she ends up killing someone before changing into them. The change involves some nasty body horror, with Nevena scooping out bits of flesh and other innards from corpses and smashing them into herself. This, in turn, causes the dead body to seemingly vanish while Nevena takes on their visage. 

After killing new mother Bosilka (Noomi Rapace), Nevena takes on her appearance. The change is noticed immediately by the people of Bosilka's village – they don't understand why she's suddenly acting so strange, so inhuman. This segment of the film has Rapace doing memorable work as she plays a character struggling to be human — she studies other people and fake-laughs when they laugh, bearing too many teeth, looking too unnatural. She swats away people who try to comfort her. She eyes her "husband" with confusion, and he eyes her with disdain. Try as she might, she can never quite get it right. 

Constant Change

An anthology format takes hold. We watch as Nevena transforms, again and again. She changes into a dog. A young man. A child. The constant change in identity is admittedly interesting, but what does "You Won't Be Alone" ultimately have to say about any of this? The answers are muddled. After a while, it all seems like an excuse to just pad the film out, as if there just wasn't enough here for a full movie, and the only way to inflate the runtime was to introduce a new segment. A segue into the backstory of Old Maid Maria that comes late in the movie certainly seems to confirm this.

Still, the landscapes are rendered beautifully here — lots of rolling hills, lots of sunlight poking through leaves on trees — and there's a wonderful contrast between the gorgeous look of nature against all the filth and grime of everything else. The characters often look appropriately unwashed, unkempt, unclean. Writer-director Stolevski does a fine job invoking the film's time period; I can't speak to its authenticity, but it feels authentic. Like we've been fully transported back in time. Indeed, while Rapace does good work here, her presence is somewhat distracting — she's the only face most audiences will recognize, and it might have been better to keep the entire movie populated with less familiar performers to maintain that sense of a distant time and place.

Those who gravitate towards folk horror will likely enjoy the rustic, rural charms mixed with blood and gore at work in 'You Won't Be Alone." And there are moments of striking beauty woven within the fabric of the narrative. And those almost completely unfamiliar with the subgenre might find the film as a whole to be eye-opening. But the film's "been there, done that" elements are too familiar for their own good, and a glacial pace mixed with a repetitive storytelling format certainly doesn't help matters. Beauty and death flow slowly through "You Won't Be Alone" like a river on the verge of drying up, and you can either float along with it all — or step out and search for something more unique instead. 

/Film Rating: 6 out of 10