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A strange kind of poetry lies in the bloody, scratched-up heart of Goran Stolevski’s You Won’t Be Alone.
The folk horror film about a young witch, which premiered Saturday at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, unfolds in broken language and cautious gestures punctuated by staccato slaps—the kind of callousness that can make the world feel like an interminable, barren pit. But as our taloned protagonist breaks away from the desperate grasp of two overbearing, warring mothers to body swap her way through different ways of living, her jumbled words take on a certain lyricism. Contradictions run through this gorgeously gory film’s veins, its pulse beating through the repetition of two words: And yet, and yet, and yet...
We first meet our young “chosen” witch, Nevena, as an infant in 19th century Macedonia whose mother is frantically pleading with a charred witch bent on taking her away. Playing up the burden of child-rearing and offering up all the other infants in the village doesn’t work, so Nevena’s mother makes another offer to Old Maid Maria: If the witch lets her raise the child, she can take her once she becomes a teenager. That way, she reasons, the witch will not be alone in her old age.
After an inevitable blood oath, Nevena’s mother stashes her baby in a “sacred” cavern where the witch ostensibly cannot find her, leaving the infant to look at the sky through a pair of holes in the rocky ceiling above. We next see Nevena as a teenager (played by Sara Klimoska), who has grown up in solitude save for her mother’s visits. Her speech is limited, her movements strange and stunted. She doesn’t speak aloud, but her internal monologue narrates the film.
By the time we meet Nevena as a teenager, her mother’s protectiveness has calcified into an overbearing kind of terror that explodes whenever her “stupid” girl tries to leave the cave—the kind of love that suffocates and scars more than it nurtures. It doesn’t take long, however, before Old Maid Maria shows up to collect her chosen progeny—replacing Nevena’s emotional isolation and starvation with a different kind of toxic bond.
It’s unclear at first what Old Maid Maria endured in life, but in death she is ruthless and demanding. She can’t stand that her daughter would rather play with a rabbit than kill it for its blood, and eventually she casts her off in abject disappointment. That’s when the film begins to reveal itself, as Nevena begins to explore the world on her own terms.
The stark cave gives way to lush forests and fields that stretch for miles, to villages filled with families that operate unlike anything Nevena has experienced before. Her first stumbling steps through this confounding expanse capture that precarious stage of life when one begins to interrogate their upbringing and wonder what they might do differently.
Klimoska embraces the idiosyncrasy of adolescence in her performance—dead eyes set against delicate hands that flutter with pleasure at everything they touch. Her voice is something between a mumble and a whisper—a sleepily confessional tone that belies the character’s feverish curiosity.
Before long, Nevena learns how to body swap with the dead—an exquisitely grotesque process that involves carving out some organs and stashing them in her own chest. She does so over and over, each switch a short-lived window into another vantage point on life. (And not exclusively human ones.)
Perhaps the most formative switch comes when Nevena takes over the body of Bosilka (Noomi Rapace), a mother whom she observes giving birth.
Bosilka’s village can immediately tell that something has shifted—especially because she’s suddenly mute—but they assume it’s the result of her husband’s violence, at least at first. Rapace’s turn as Nevena is revelatory both in performance and narrative scope; she blossoms among the women of the village but observes that among men, women must become liquid—meant to be held silently in their hands like stew in a bowl. It’s Nevena’s first exploration of community, and Rapace plays the character as both unsettled and unsettling, a collage of fragile glances and clumsy attempts at connection. Her wide grin reveals rotting teeth.
Old Maid Maria haunts her stolen daughter across all of these lives, filling her ears with cynicism and cutting down her every attempt at happiness with bitter questions like, “Do you think you’re the first person to try this?” As desperate as she was to be a mother, the old witch cannot move past her own anger.
Stolevski’s lens, too, is addicted to contradiction; lush scenery sets the stage for some of his most gruesome scenes, and even his close-knit communities linger under the specter of Turkish domination. Old Maid Maria’s wrath is both personal and political, her witch identity a metaphor for all the usual literary and cinematic tropes. And while Nevena’s narration serves as a constant reminder of her status as “other,” her strange speech patterns illuminate how estrangement can, in time, foster a deeper sense of self for those brave and curious enough to seek it. She speaks about her multiple selves in a way that might resonate with anyone who’s had to try on a few ways of living in order to survive—and more importantly, she’s able to recognize and express that kaleidoscopic nature in others.
You Won’t Be Alone states its chief fascination in the title: It’s an exploration of the paradoxically universal experience of feeling, in some way, alone. Old Maid Maria’s tragic backstory (which we won’t reveal here) stemmed from her embrace of a specific, socially mandated kind of togetherness—a longing for the conventional family unit as the be-all, end-all of human connection. Nevena’s biological mother, paralyzed by the fear of a great loss, couldn’t see that protecting her daughter for herself by isolating her would only create a greater loss.
With each new body she takes over on her journey, Nevena explores a different way of being with others, a new version of togetherness. Stolevski is not particularly interested in the circumstances of the young witch’s early isolation; if he were, one imagines he wouldn’t have skipped over her childhood entirely. Instead, he steeps viewers in Nevena’s emotional reality as someone who desperately wants to learn what life can be versus what it has to be—and the role love can play in shifting the boundary between the two.
Toward the end of her journey, Nevena begins asking herself another question: Can it really be this simple? The connections she’s able to make as each “self” are often short-lived but cherished all the same; in each new body, she carries all of her selves and the bonds she formed along the way. It’s a way of living that would likely confound both her mothers, but embracing her status as an outsider allows Nevena to recognize the “other” in everyone else. In doing so, she discovers a fundamental truth that many of us nonetheless spend our lives struggling to embrace: The only way to not be alone is to be comfortable with the fact that in some ways, we’re all alone.