At once profound, moderately horrific, and heartbreaking, the new “folk horror” film You Won’t Be Alone is not what you expect it to be. A meditation on what it means to be human, Goran Stolevski’s first full-length feature film is as unusual as it is original. It positions itself to be in the vein of The Witch or Midsommar when, in fact, it is something more intimate and insightful than either of those films could ever be. It’s as if Terrence Malick decided to make a horror film and ended up making a visual poem about the experience of life.
The film, in summary, is simple. A witch (Annamaria Marinca) – here called the Old Maid Maria – goes about looking for the blood of newborns to feed her appetite. But when a young mother begs her to allow her child to be hers until the age of sixteen, Old Maid Maria allows it, but not without setting the stage for the witch the child is to become.
That child grows up to be Nevena (Sara Klimoska), a cave-dwelling girl kept hidden by her mother in the hopes she would never be found. But found she is, and Old Maid Maria takes her out into a 19th Century Macedonian forest to see what the world is all about.
As Old Maid Maria teaches the ways of witchery, Nevena is taken by a local village and the people who live there. Her innocence, curiosity, and naivety cause many a bloody accident, and through those missteps, she is transformed into whoever she kills. The villagers aren’t sure what happens to their village-folk, but they know something isn’t right with them when they return. From Bosika (Noomi Rapace) to Boris (Carloto Cotta) and eventually the body of a young girl, Nevena is able to experience all the pleasures and pain of existence.
One of the biggest things she learns is how women are treated and their place in the world. Being something other than human, she can navigate this in a way other women cannot, which often ends in tragedy. But when she experiences life as a man, she regains the power and a strength she needs to find her place in the world – as a woman.
All the while, Old Maid Maria stands watch, mocking her for her desire to be something other than preternatural but jealous of her determination to do so.
This is the heart of Stolevski’s film, a moving and heartbreaking story even when bodies are falling apart. He directs with a documentarian’s hand, with most of the dialogue handled in voice-over (also a Malick trait). The performances he gets out of all of his cast are ravishingly compelling, with close-ups that pull us into the wonder that Nevena is experiencing through the bodies she inhabits.
Cinematographer Matthew Chung (“Blue Bayou”) fashions a sumptuous Macedonia, allowing us into the feel and rapture of the place. You can feel the grass and smell the musty huts as if you were there. He captures the ecstasy and torment of Nevena’s journey no matter what body she holds onto, and it’s a credit to Chung, the actors, and Stolevski that even though the actors switch out every twenty minutes or so, you still recognize the character you’ve been following.
Oftentimes, body-switching movies are too aware of the actors replacing others while trying to be the same character. Here, however, thanks to the voice-over and skill of the cast, you follow the journey with ease, allowing for the heartache and joy of one singular character with many visages.
And I won’t fail to mention that Mark Brashaw’s score is transcendent.
I can’t stress enough that if you’re looking for something along the lines of an A24 horror film, this isn’t it. But that’s not a bad thing. This movie longs to be seen, felt, and experienced. Sure, there’s some bloody body horror, but that’s only in moments to further the story of Nevena, an isolated girl/woman/man who desperately wants to connect to the world and, through trial and error, finds her way to never being alone again.