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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Review: Folk-horror film ‘You Won’t Be Alone’ is scares with a side of poetry

Sara Klimoska and Anamaria Marinca in “You Won’t Be Alone.”  (Branko Starcevic/Focus Features)
By Michael O’Sullivan Washington Post

The international folk-horror renaissance, marked by shivery recent treats such as the Icelandic “Lamb” and the Irish “You Are Not My Mother,” continues with “You Won’t be Alone,” a creepy, yet hauntingly beautiful fable of a witch who yearns to be human.

The assured feature debut of Macedonian-born, Australia-based Goran Stolevski (one of Variety’s 10 directors to watch for 2022) is set in rural 19th century Macedonia and opens with the visit of a hideously burn-scarred witch (Anamaria Marinca) – known to villagers as both Old Maid Maria and the Wolf-Eateress, or Volkojatka – to a peasant woman and her infant daughter, Nevena.

Maria wants the baby. Tearful bargaining ensues, in which Maria bites off the child’s tongue as a down payment, so to speak, with the understanding that she will return to collect the girl when she turns 16. That’s quite the opening. But you ain’t seen nothing yet.

Maria does return for her Nevena long after her mother has hidden her away in a cave, where the girl grows to adolescence, deprived of a normal childhood. Played by Sara Klimoska, a 27-year-old Macedonian actress with striking green-blue eyes, the mute teenage Nevena is transformed into a witch by Maria, who casts her young quarry aside after the girl proves inept at witchery.

Nevena narrates the film with an inner monologue: a kind of broken-Macedonian poetry in which she refers to herself as “me-the-witch” to distinguish who she has become from her former, cloistered self – a feral child, but not yet a necromancer.

“You Won’t Be Alone” can be ghoulish at times, but also gorgeous, in the swooning manner of a Terrence Malick film: all grass and leaves and sky and water captured by tumbling camera work that evokes the wide-eyed wonder of someone experiencing the world for the first time.

But Nevena, whose fingers end in black, clawlike nails, will never again be accepted as fully human. As it becomes clear over this slowly unspooling story, witches are shape-shifters and can assume the form of people or animals that have died – or that they have killed. That offers her a vicarious way to experience what she could not otherwise access.

While this is Nevena’s journey, Maria continues to shadow her, and Maria’s tragic backstory – along with the origin of her Old Maid moniker – will eventually come out via flashback, as Nevena’s own search for herself plays out. Stolevski is in no hurry to throw down all his cards at once, however, and the film is not for the impatient. Stay with “Alone,” though, and you will be rewarded with a campfire story of a boogeyman that also offers grown-up pleasures.

Over the course of the film, Nevena assumes the forms of two women and a man, played by an international trio of performers: Sweden’s Noomi Rapace, France’s Carloto Cotta and Australia’s Alice Englert. In the process, she learns not what she has lost, but something she has never known: love.

The horror of this film – and it is considerable, with a villain who looks like Freddy Krueger and several instances of bloody violence – nevertheless takes a back seat to a more expansive and ultimately satisfying agenda. More than anything, “You Won’t Be Alone” tells the tale of a young woman who is discovering – in this case, by supernatural means – not just what it costs to embrace her inner “me-the-witch” but, as she puts it in her poetic voiceover, “every last me.”