What happens after we die? It’s an eternal question, one that humans have asked time and time again but will likely never know the answer to. “Nine Days” asks the exact opposite question: What happens before we’re born? The premise of the movie was intriguing enough to give it a watch; why do we focus so much on our future without any regard for our past? “Nine Days,” directed by Edson Oda (“Malaria”), does an admirable job of focusing on the other end of the biological timeline.
Will (Winston Duke, “Black Panther”) is tasked with judging who is allowed to be born. He informs every candidate who arrives at his house, a place where people are neither dead nor alive, of the same thing: “You are being considered for the amazing opportunity of life.” Over the next nine days, Will tests them and determines if they’re strong enough to survive in the real world. If they are, they become a newborn. If not, they simply vanish into the air, becoming a part of the white desert that surrounds them.
It’s easy to believe that Oda’s middle ground world, while fictional, actually does exist. You can see yourself in Mike (David Rysdahl, “That’s Not Us”), the shy, insecure candidate who constantly feels like he’s not good enough, or Maria (Arianna Ortiz, “Parenthood”) who only craves bike rides and the outdoors. At a certain point, you start to believe that any of these people could have been you. The specific set of circumstances that led to you being born is monumental. We’re lucky to be in this world, but we live as if this life was always meant to be. It wasn’t.
Much of “Nine Days” revolves around the relationship between Will and Emma (Zazie Beetz, “Deadpool 2”), a free-spirited, headstrong young woman who doesn’t care for Will’s tests or questions. She wants to live on her own terms. As a character, Emma is predictable as the one that breaks the conventional mold. Even so, Duke’s and Beetz’s performances perfectly complement each other; every interaction sends fiery sparks flying through the theater. Oda crafts a beautifully juxtaposed duo without hinting at any romantic relationship between the two, an easy misstep that would’ve taken away much of the magic.
Even with such a somber theme, Oda manages to sprinkle in lots of humor and vitality. Kyo (Benedict Wong, “The Martian”), Will’s helper, offsets Will’s melancholy aura, giving the audience something firm to grasp onto in a world of altered realities. Alexander (Tony Hale, “Arrested Development”) offers the predicted and appreciated punchlines, the awkward stumbling and bumbling reminiscent of a newborn taking their first steps. There’s nothing funny about people ceasing to exist when they’re not selected, but the humor still lands well.
A cloudy Utah morning greeted me when I walked out of the theater, but it felt like the sun was shining on me, rays cascading into my heart. This film makes you think, feel and love life. “Nine Days” may be one of the most thought-provoking films to come out of Sundance 2020.