This review originally ran as part of Paste’s Sundance 2022 coverage.
The sprawling, mountainous landscape of nineteenth century Macedonia envelops every frame of You Won’t Be Alone, writer-director Goran Stolevski’s feature debut. A meandering portrait of shape-shifting sorceresses who live on (and off of) the peripheral terrain of a pastoral village, the film is particularly interested in the shifting state of power and peril that comes with practicing witchcraft. Though its leisurely pace and sinuous storyline might test the audience’s patience, the Macedonian-Australian filmmaker packs his folk horror breakthrough with enough guts and gore to keep eyes fixed on the screen.
When a mute baby girl is left by her mother in a cave to evade a seemingly inevitable indoctrination into witchcraft, she gradually grows into a feral young woman (Sara Klimoska). When a beldam “wolf-eatress” (Anamaria Marinca) eventually arrives to court her into the occult, the girl follows, cautiously curious about life outside of the cavern that sheltered her for the past 16 years. After being ritualistically branded with the witch’s mark, the girl realizes she possesses the ability to take on the form of any living creature she kills—coupled with a newfound appetite for hot blood and entrails. However, the girl’s swelling affinity for a world she had previously been cut off from clashes with the misanthropic outlook of her mother superior, resulting in the young witch going off on her own. In attempting to forge her own livelihood, the girl crosses paths with a young peasant woman (Noomi Rapace) and her newborn baby. Thinking the girl will do harm to her child, the mother lunges at her and is mortally wounded by the young witch’s talon-like nails. Arrested by fright and intrigue, the girl resolves to take this woman’s form for herself—a decision that sets forth a journey in understanding the intricacies of human life she might never have experienced otherwise.
Though You Won’t Be Alone is entrenched in a hearty humanism that embraces the ordinary toil of staying alive, it is also steeped in observations of gendered strife as it has historically affected women. Before the young witch encounters Rapace’s peasant, the camera cuts to the woman clutching onto the wooden beams of a fence on her farm’s edge, crouching and caterwauling mid-labor. As soon as the baby is delivered, the midwife ushers the child away—and the blood-flecked woman waddles back to the working fields. This terse transition from childbirth to manual labor illustrates that work for women exists on multiple, oft-exploited planes, and that in assuming this woman’s form, the young witch is in for a rude gender-based reckoning. Thus, the girl transitions through other forms as the extraneous material conditions of these host bodies are eventually exacerbated by her lack of worldly experience—with the scorned wolf-eatress periodically appearing to reiterate her contempt for the girl’s naive insistence on living among humans. As a centuries-old entity, the wolf-eatress knows firsthand the vitriolic ire that humans, especially men, are more than ready to inflict on women who embrace the potential of witchcraft.
While the film is largely guided by the girl’s inner voiceover, it is also heavily influenced by the ancillary characters in the lives she’s secretly assimilating into: fatigued mother-in-laws, abusive husbands, doting sisters. These connections provide an appropriately nuanced (if often disturbing) depiction of social pecking orders, incorporating moments of rugged optimism and seemingly senseless brutality to demonstrate life’s random violence and virtue. Yet You Won’t Be Alone struggles in its study of the two shape-shifting witches, never quite platforming and unpacking their mutually repellent dynamic. Even the villagers who the girl masquerades among are as hollow as the husks of human flesh she inhabits, eluding any insight on the human condition that isn’t reduced to a drab provincial humility or backwards barbarism.
Nonetheless, Stolevski’s debut is enthralling and thoughtful, cutting through the clichés of similar recent releases of the same vein. Despite its under-interrogated premise, You Won’t Be Alone is an intriguing, unsettling feature debut with an incisive bite—a strength that the filmmaker will surely sharpen over time. The result is an enticing witch’s brew you can’t stop sipping, even if there’s a slightly sour aftertaste.
Director: Goran Stolevski
Writer: Goran Stolevski
Stars: Sara Klimoska, Noomi Rapace, Anamaria Marinca, Alice Englert, Carloto Cotta, Félix Maritaud
Release Date: January 22, 2022 (Sundance)
Natalia Keogan is a freelance film writer based in Queens, New York. Her work has been featured in Paste, Blood Knife and Filmmaker magazines, among others. Find her on Twitter.