“You Won’t Be Alone” opens with a cat trotting innocuously across a woodland floor. It ventures offscreen; we hear a yelping meow and a sickening crunch and assume the worst. Surprisingly, moments later it ventures into the screen once again, its tail held high, undulating blithely. Then we take the cat’s roving point of view as it scampers this way and that, making its way through the forest.
In Australian writer-turned-director Goran Stolevski’s feature film debut, starring (and co-executive produced by) Noomi Rapace (“Prometheus”), nothing is really what it seems. Part fairy tale, part supernatural horror, the film is a deeply metaphysical coming-of-age story at its core. In 19th-century Macedonia, Nevena (Sara Klimoska, “Mocvara”) is chosen by a witch (Anamaria Marinca, “Sex Traffic”) to become her scion when she is still a toddler. Hoping to avoid this eventuality, Nevena’s mother locks her in a cave, but this proves fruitless as the witch comes to claim her in her adolescence, à la Rapunzel. As a feral young woman deprived of contact with the outside world for all her life, Pandora’s box has been opened for her, and she embarks on a tantalizing journey of self-discovery to find her place in the world.
Possessing the ability to inhabit the physical form of the last person whose life she takes, Nevena lives vicariously by inheriting the routines and responsibilities of men, women and children whose social roles have already been carved out. Nevena’s history and her newly given ability serve almost as “rules of the game,” an alluring set of parameters that the film mines in depth. She navigates community life with a childlike sense of wonderment and naiveté — after all, she has never before been in the company of others. This brings out many of the film’s lighter, more amusing moments, but also serves as a compelling study of human nature through her innocent mind. She is a tabula rasa, soaking up what she sees like a sponge. Being mute, Nevena never speaks directly; instead, her thoughts and observations are brought to light through a sort of fragmented, poetic narration that gives an idea of the revelations she’s gleaned through her experiences.
As such, dialogue is sparse, and much of the storytelling is done visually. Klimoska (and all the other actors playing characters whose bodies Nevena “possesses”) tremendously portray her curiosity and continued social development as she gradually begins to understand how humans operate. The camera of cinematographer Matthew Chuang (“Blue Bayou”) is often subjective, taking Nevena’s perspective in her various iterations and placing her personal experience front and center. The film’s fantastical element is heightened through its lush and refined imagery, creating a hypnotic, dreamlike world.
This is a world in a place and time when women are groomed to be of service to men, but find support and sisterhood in each other’s companionship, when any show of weakness or insecurity from a man leads to shunning and exclusion and when childhood is doubtlessly the most blissful existence of all. Nevena’s contemplations present a pure and fundamentally humanist outlook of gender dynamics, social norms and the purpose of life. Although the film’s philosophical questioning never ventures too deep, it is nevertheless an honest and poignant reflection on the meaning of humanity, one that takes a more direct approach to doing so than other works of art.
Both visually and ideologically rich, “You Won’t Be Alone” is a genre-bending piece of cinema that knows exactly what it’s doing and does it well. It doesn’t invite controversy, nor is it exceptionally revolutionary — but it sure is good.
Daily Arts Writer Adrian Hui can be reached at email@example.com.