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(Credit: Toronto Black Film Festival)

Film

'Alice' Review: Krystin Ver Linden makes a powerful debut

'Alice' - Krystin Ver Linden
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Alice is an unusual combination of historical drama, time-travel fantasy, racial justice diatribe, and revenge saga in a unique combination. Its director, Krystin Ver Linden, learned about screenwriting and directing partly from the years she spent working for Quentin Tarantino, acting as an assistant on multiple films, including Django Unchained and Inglourious Basterds. Her first feature, Alice, which she both wrote and directed, recently premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. The film was clearly challenging to make, involving a first-time director, a novice production company, a small budget typical of indie films, and an incredibly tight three-week shooting schedule. It was further complicated by the outbreak of Covid just as filming was about to begin, requiring quick and innovative changes in order to complete the film within safety guidelines. Fortunately, the director and crew were up to the challenge. 

The movie opens on a familiar, even archetypal, scene from the antebellum American south. Enslaved people in 19th-century garb work the fields surrounding a mansion owned by the wealthy Paul Bennet (Jonny Lee Miller) in an unspecified part of Georgia. The enslaved people live under brutal conditions, intensified by Mennonite pastor Bennet’s fanatical conviction that his authority is divinely sanctioned. Significantly, none of the enslaved people has ever been away from the plantation and rarely see anyone from outside the Bennet property. These initial scenes are beautifully filmed, with a vague feeling of fantasy or myth; the surrounding woods hanging with Spanish moss, the stately plantation manor house contrasting with the rough cabins, are all grimly realistic, but with overtones of a storybook image of the old south. 

The central character, an enslaved person named Alice (Keke Palmer), has informally married fellow slave Joseph (Gaius Charles), but their union is not recognised by Bennet. Alice’s anger and frustration with her lot increases, and following a series of confrontations with Bennet, she attempts to escape. As she reaches the boundaries of Bennet’s plantation, the plot takes an abrupt, totally unexpected, and extremely drastic turn in a completely new direction when Alice finds herself in the Georgia of 1973. It is a theme familiar from other recent productions, especially the 2020 horror film Antebellum, but Alice takes a slightly different approach. This second act of the film has a more realistic feel to it than the first, partly because the scenes are bright and colourful, unlike the earlier plantation scenes, which rely on muted colours and low light to set a mood; and is more upbeat and optimistic, in contrast to the pain and hopelessness of the earlier scenes. Everything is suddenly seen from a new perspective by both the audience and Alice herself. Alice’s unexpected leap into the apparent future is assisted by Frank (Common), a stranger who takes her under his wing as she tries to understand her situation, adapt, and decide how to act.

The film’s significant difficulty is in keeping the plot consistent and believable. Alice’s personal development, once she has left the plantation, is far too quick and effortless, perhaps a result of the tight production schedule, and at times the action seems to move forward in awkward jumps rather than flow believably. The fairy-tale quality of the film’s second half partly allows for this, but it is still a distraction. However, any weaknesses in continuity are made up for by other factors, beginning with the strength of lead actor Keke Palmer’s performance as Alice, which takes on an ever-expanding range of moods and attitudes with passionate conviction. 

Style and cultural references are a significant part of the film and are handled deftly. Much of the soundtrack, especially in the first half of the movie, was composed by Common; it is not music that is tied to any particular place or time but is evocative and carefully chosen to enhance the mood of each scene. In the action taking place in 1973, just after the crest of the US civil rights movement, Black American music of the period sets an entirely different tone, using familiar hits as background, as humorous contrast, or to announce a plot twist. The musical score and practical camera work take the story up a level. The semi-serious introduction of 1970s Black American popular culture adds another level to the story, making public figures such as Angela Davis, and female-led action films of the day, from Coffey to Cleopatra Jones, both part of the story and a running commentary, in a highly entertaining way. The script makes effective, often symbolic, use of minor issues of fashion, particularly hairstyles, and few screen makeovers have been as auspicious, or as playfully gratifying, as Alice’s. 1970s influences continue to make a statement through the action-packed, possibly Tarantino-influenced, finale. 

Alice walks a fine line between serious drama with political overtones and slightly tongue-in-cheek metaphorical fantasy. It’s a film that works well, provided the viewer lets the story set the tone without inflexible expectations. This first production from a promising new filmmaker is scheduled for US release on March 18th.

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