Moviegoer: You Won’t Be Alone

Alice Englert in You Won’t Be Alone.

A young witch tries on humanity in this pastoral fairytale

By Diana Beechener

When she was still crying in her crib, Nevena (Sara Klimoska: Nico) was marked by a witch. Desperate to keep Nevena safe, her mother hides her away in a cave, with nothing but stone walls and religious icons for company. But keeping Nevena isolated only works for so long.

         The witch comes to collect Nevena on her 16th birthday. Though she longs for a mother or at least a mentor, the witch offers her nothing but harsh instruction. Horribly scarred and full of spite, the witch seems to hate any spark of human feeling left in Nevena. Unsure of how to be a proper witch—Nevena would rather befriend forest critters than suck the blood out of their entrails—she’s soon rejected by the witch and abandoned in the wood.

Left to her own devices, Nevena finds herself drawn back to the humans. When she accidentally kills a village woman Nevena assumes her form. Life as a 19th-century Macedonian peasant woman is hard but edifying. Nevena decides to see what life as a man is like, and kills another villager to take his place.

As she wears the skins of different people, Nevena starts to learn about the beauty and the horrors of the human experience. Can she find a place in the human world or is she doomed to live on the edges of it, as her witch mentor does?

A stunningly beautiful fairytale about the human experience, You Won’t Be Alone isn’t your average tale of witches and death. It’s gory to be sure. If you don’t have a strong stomach for viscera, this is not the movie for you. But the horror elements are secondary to the dreamy pastoral quality of the filmmaking. You Won’t Be Alone is much closer to the fairytales of old—the ones where Cinderella’s stepsisters cut off their toes to fit into the glass slipper—than to anything you’d find from Disney.

And that’s clearly writer/director Goran Stolevski’s vision. His feature debut is a horror story reimagined in the style of Terrence Malick. And this meditative, impressionist way of telling a story fits the character of Nevena (who has little experience of the witch or human world) beautifully. Stolevski never shies away from the gruesome and horrific sides of life—the women of the village dismiss Nevena’s odd quirks as a result of her husband beating her too frequently—but he also examines what makes humanity so compelling.

For every moment of cruelty, there’s a fascinating new experience that brings Nevena back into the fold. Stolevski lets his creation live out all facets of human experience and still crave more, making it an uplifting watch, even though it has brutal elements. There’s also a sense of alienation, the idea that Nevena will never find a place for herself in or out of human society. Her witchy maker becomes a metaphor for Nevena’s sense of otherness. But for every magical element, Stolevski has a human component. Even the witch, who is feared by all, has an origin that is deeply human and tragic.  

Though the film centers around Nevena, it’s played by several different actors. The trick of the film is to see her curiosity and childlike cruelty no matter who the young witch is impersonating. It’s truly an impressive feat that is accomplished by a host of amazing acting talent. Noomi Rapace, Félix Maritaud, and Alice Englert all take turns giving life to Nevena, and all offer unique, but complementary takes on her development.

If you’re in the market for some good scares, or a spooky story, You Won’t Be Alone will likely disappoint. Stolevski isn’t interested in scaring anyone. But if you’re in the mood for a beautiful reflection on what it means to be human, this movie will have you itching to discuss it after screening. It’s a bold, lovely debut that marks Stolevski as a filmmaker to watch.

You Won’t Be Alone is playing in select theaters April 1.

Great Drama * R * 108 mins.