What does it mean to be human? A question not too easily answered but definitely pondered throughout history. Perhaps an all-encompassing answer does not exist. From the onset of our existence until our passing, our lives are defined by experiences that shape who we are and how we perceive and react to the world around us. Experiences that come as a result of our environment can be filled with wonder, happiness, love, sadness, hope, and yes, even horror. They are uniquely personal and guide each individual toward a different conclusion.

In You Won’t be Alone, the directorial debut of Goran Stolevski, such musings are explored through the experiences of young Nevena (Sara Klimoska). Set in Macedonia during the 19th century, the story begins when the hideously scarred (both physically and emotionally) witch Old Maid Maria (Anamaria Marinca), known as the “Wolf-Eateress” by the locals, visits a small town. She approaches the newborn Nevena and her mother (Arta Dobroshi) with intention of abducting the child for herself. Nevena’s mother bargains with the old hag in an attempt to keep her daughter until her 16th birthday. The deal not only costs Nevena her tongue but her childhood when her mother hides her away in a sacred cave the Evil Spirit cannot enter. Despite these claims, Old Maid Maria finds Nevena and completes the deal.

What follows is an exploration of the world and life by Nevena. Maria passes on her witch condition, including shape-shifting abilities, in a final blow to the little humanity the feral girl has left. However, Nevena moves in a direction wholly different than what the Wolf-Eater anticipates; she is filled with wonder and excitement. She shares none of the cynicism of her mentor as she explores a new world. Left on her own, Nevena assimilates herself into different villages by shape-shifting into different people via a viciously gory process. The filmmakers relish showing us the transformation, and no detail is glossed over.

With this new power, she continues her journey of discovery in different bodies. First, she lives life as a woman (Noomi Rapace) who suffers the abuse of her husband. Then, as a dog where she can safely observe the men of the town. Later, she becomes a man (Carlo Cotta) and experiences a sexual awakening. In a twist of fate, she then becomes a little girl (Anastasija Karanovich and later Alice Englert when grown) where she can finally live out her childhood into womanhood. Each experience, good and bad, adds a piece of humanity back.

The ability to witness life as a woman, man, child, and beast offers Nevena a unique perspective on life. In each corporal form, she assimilates well with her adoptive community, enjoying but also suffering through what each offers. Each experience draws her closer to who she wants to be and how she wants to live, factors that become increasingly important as she is later on faced with potentially life-destroying situations.

Inspired by folklore, the film progresses with subtle steps. It is peppered with few words in Macedonian that carry much weight and are never superfluous. Both beautiful and visceral images tell the story here. Ethereal scenes accompanied by narration (reminiscent of Terrence Malick) allow viewers to join in the wonderment of new explorations and the horror of the eventual revelations. The actors shine as they all perfectly capture the emotions and physicality of Nevena and her awkward discoveries. There is beauty in each of the findings, but Stolevski always reminds audiences evil is never far away. The evil witch lurks. Tragedy and horror are inevitable. Much of the horror depicted is the result of patriarchal societies and toxic masculinity, two very real elements that all the female characters experience in the movie and that shape each of them in unique ways.

You Won’t be Alone is not a typical horror movie. Art-horror has carved its own niche, and this offering firmly falls in that category. The gore and viscera are still there, but the film is more interested in exploring the duality of existence. Love and loss. Excitement and fear. Beauty and ugliness. Optimism and cynicism. With the exception of a few pacing issues, You Won’t Be Alone is an impressive and poignant directorial debut that will remain in the minds of viewers long after it is experienced. This may provide a partial answer to what it means, in all its virtuousness and wickedness, to be human.

BORJA’S Rating 9.5/10

You Won’t Be Alone is distributed by Focus Features. It is currently streaming on Peacock.

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