14 June 2024

Courtesy of Sundance Institute Eliza Morse.

Sundance 2022 Film Review – Alice (2021)

Alice lives a miserable life of humiliating servitude and sexual abuse as the favoured slave of plantation owner Mr.Paul. When she successfully executes a violent bid for freedom she makes a mindblowing discovery. It is actually 1973 and her entire insufferable existence, and that of generations of her family has been nothing more than a cruel misdirection.

Thrust into an alien world of unimagined progress Alice teams up with disillusioned civil rights activist Frank and plots a course for resolution and revenge.

Director/writer Krystin Ver Linden‘s ballsy debut is a heady mix of lurid 70’s revenger and brutal slavery drama that could have gone hideously awry in lesser hands. However, she infuses every frame of her film with such measured passion, fire, and infectious empowerment that it’s impossible not to become entranced by its kaleidoscopic world-building.

Her script is both wickedly direct and soulfully introspective with the perfect mix of air-punching one-liners and reflective breathing space. Some will no doubt accuse her of trivialising historical suffering by applying a Blaxploitation blueprint.

However, for me, this artistic decision is more one of playful cultural reclamation than sensationalist downgrading. Using the blunt tools of exploitation cinema to chip away at the real-world evils of human exploitation, past, and present is almost as sharp as it is brave.

Aesthetically speaking, the later sections of the movie look truly glorious. Early 70’s Georgia leaps off the screen with evocatively constructed sets and clothes and hairstyles to die for. A direct juxtaposition to the oppressive and cloyingly bleak depiction of  Antebellum Period America that proceeds it.

The cinematography from Alex Disenhof is versatile and atmospheric, knowing exactly when to be tricksy with split-screen homages and when to dwell on emotional plangency. There is a distinct same page symbiosis with Byron Smith’s clever editing who deploys his vast T.V. show experience to keep the film pacy and fresh.

All three of the main protagonists should be as proud of their powerful acting work as Krystin Ver Linden is no doubt grateful for their invaluable contributions to her movie. Alice simply would not work anywhere near as well as it does without their exemplary commitment and tonal grasp

Jonny Lee Miller is outstandingly brutish as depraved slave owner Mr. Paul. A despicable sociopath whose utter contempt for his “domestic livestock” is given a retrospectively perverse and sadistic slant after the movie’s big reveal. It’s a challenging role and he meets it head-on by doubling down on the congenial godfearing bigotry before going full unhinged racist fuckbag.

Rapper turned actor Common draws upon his own tireless social justice campaigning to imbibe the character of Frank with a tangible sense of humility and wounded pride. He proves a sweet yet badass guardian angel for Alice as he helps her to navigate the pitfalls and pleasures of modern America. He calibrates his performance with such a quiet exactitude that it writes its own backstory.

Keke Palmer’s portrayal of the titular Alice is nothing short of miraculous. If she does not hit paydirt during awards season then it will be the biggest snub since Ellen Burstyn was inexplicably ignored for her work on depressional dirty bomb Requiem for a Dream

Her transformation from downtrodden slave to funk-era afro sporting superbitch, taking her lead from iconic black women such as Diana Ross and Pam Grier, is conducted with a style and grace that captivates at every turn. As Alice progresses from fainting at the sight of a haulage truck to formulating a new persona from the covers of Rolling Stone magazine Palmer exudes a sense of inner strength and empathetic pathos that shields the entire film from the grabby claws of exploitation.

Alice uses her ability to read, only bestowed upon her by her former slavemaster to enhance his insidious gaslighting, to garner a clear understanding of the extent of her victimisation. The subdued moments in which she becomes privy to the inspirational words of activists such as MLK, Malcolm X, and Angela Davis are genuinely moving and the dawning of how she has been denied her own emancipation devastating.

Midway through the film, Alice tracks down and meets a former wife of her oppressor. “You will never know what freedom is in a million years“, she tells Alice. “I am freedom!” she snarls back in the kind of fabulous manner that cinema was probably invented for in the first place.

The movies’ multi-composer meandering score really shouldn’t work but completely does and the accompanying tunes of the time are solid gold classics that add to the feel-good flavour of what is essentially a highly disturbing fable. Not least because incredibly, it is based on true events.

It must have been tempting to keep the film’s delicious rug pull fully camouflaged for a head fuck moment of epic proportions. Especially as it happens so deep into the runtime. Yet the decision to include the twist details in press materials and I assume forthcoming publicity, is totally understandable.

Krystin Ver Linden’s movie has such heart and intrinsic entertainment value that it simply does not need to rely on a shocking Sixth Sense type reveal to get by. The jarring change of gear may be the catalyst for Alice’s struggle for equality, but the film is more than smart enough not to make it the focal point.

Alice is one of those small movies that feels massive when you watch it. Sizzling with creative energy and crowd-pleasing bravado it is designed to be a microcosm of a much wider issue. I have a strong inkling the wider public is going to adore it much more than overthinking critics at film festivals.

★★★★★

Civil Rights Drama/Thriller | USA | 2021 |Not Yet Rated| 1h 40 mins |Sundance Film Festival  | Vertical Entertainment / Roadside Attractions| Dir. Krystin Ver Linden| With: Keke Palmer, Common, Jonny Lee Miller, Gaius Charles

Alice will be set free by Vertical Entertainment & Roadside Attractions in March 2022


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