Folk horror has become a niche of interest among filmmakers within the horror genre in recent years, from Robert Eggers’ debut feature The Witch and Lukas Feigelfeld’s criminally overlooked debut Hagazussa to Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched, an epic documentary chronicling the subgenre’s entire history. At the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, the genre gained a new entry in the form of You Won’t Be Alone, and despite some flaws in its execution, Goran Stolevski’s debut feature is worthy of all the praise it received at said festival thanks to a unique visual style, affecting performances from its cast and a script packed with thematic depth.
Taking place in 19th-century Macedonia, You Won’t Be Alone begins with aged and scarred shapeshifter Maria (Anamaria Marinca) cursing infant Nevena into eternal life as a mute Wolf-Eateress (‘witch’ in ancient Macedonian folklore). Her mother Yoana (Kamka Tocinovski) begs Maria to let her raise Nevena until adolescence, and she is allowed to do so, but isolates Nevena in a cave away from civilization. Nevena’s mother cares for her sporadically throughout the days until she reaches 16 years of age (where she is portrayed by Sara Klimoska), upon which Maria returns to collect her and teach her the ways of witchhood.
Nevena learns several lessons from her captor including how to sustain herself on human and animal victims, in addition to the grisly methods of morphing into them post-consumption. However, Maria is quick to leave Nevena to her own devices, which she uses to accidentally kill a peasant woman named Bosilka (Noomi Rapace) amidst her disorientation and confusion about the outside world. Nevena then takes the form of Bosilka and explores her life in servitude to her abusive husband. From there, Nevena takes shape as several beings, from man and woman to child and even canine to comprehend the mysteries of life in a myriad of experiences.
In his debut feature film, Stolevski establishes himself as a master of visual direction, especially of actors. Rapace is stellar as she usually is as the second being Nevena inhabits, conveying a wondrous curiosity with natural bemusement. She also does a stellar job in communicating Nevena’s growing capacity for understanding in an amusing scene that turns affecting when Bosilka’s friend Stamena (Arta Dobroshi) compares the bruises on her arm to those on Bosilka’s neck. Meanwhile, as Nevena’s true form, Klimoska establishes herself as a talent to watch through the looks she gives the sky in a dizzying bewilderment upon seeing the sun and feeling the atmosphere around her for the first time.
Stolevski also shows a ton of potential through his directorial style. The use of handheld camerawork adds a raw look that permeates over the course of You Won’t Be Alone, while a consistent employment of shallow focus keeps the elements of horror and mystery throughout, particularly when Nevena is unaware of the mysterious being behind her, and whether or not they are a friend or foe. What’s also worth noting is the 4:3 aspect ratio, which has the dual effect of adding a level of intimacy when Nevena meanders forests in ceaseless curiosity, as well expressing unease as the film takes turns for the gory.
Despite its occasional grotesqueness, the script for You Won’t Be Alone aims for truth through its dialogue written in an ancient Macedonian dialect to allow for maximum authenticity. There is also beauty to be found in the movie’s themes, which touch on ideas about the bonds of female kinship, the roles both genders play in society, what it means to love, to have power and empathy, the conflict of nature versus nurture, and the bizarre nature of human existence. (“And yet, what isn’t strange?” Nevena often asks.)
However, Stolevski gets so caught up in trying to make a unique grand statement about life, that he ends up undercutting the most successful elements of You Won’t Be Alone. Mark Bradshaw’s minimalist score often conveys the melancholy and grace of a respective scene through a lone violin, a piano or a haunting synth line, but other times there are bombastic classical musical cues straight out of The Tree of Life that feel overbearing. Stolevski also wears his Malickian influence on his sleeve even further through a voiceover that conveys Nevena’s inner thoughts incredibly well in a broken but understandable vocabulary that is hard to grasp at first, but almost always distracts from the powerful simplicity of the film’s images and performances.
That does add a narrative throughline for casual viewers to grasp, however, and that helps You Won’t Be Alone serve as a worthy debut feature for Goran Stolevski, as well as a solid introduction for anyone looking to ease themselves into arthouse horror. Audiences will marvel at the technical craft on display, be horrified by the turns the story takes for the violent, and be endeared to Nevena as they gander at the world through her eyes, and those of the figures she embodies. The film may not be as abstract as anything A24 has made in the last half-decade, but there’s still a plethora of ideas for spectators to chew on, and that’s why you won’t regret seeing You Won’t Be Alone this weekend.