SUNDANCE22 REVIEW: Alice [2022]

Rating: 5 out of 10.
  • Rating: NR | Runtime: 100 minutes
    Release Date: March 18th, 2022 (USA)
    Studio: Roadside Attractions / Vertical Entertainment
    Director(s): Krystin Ver Linden
    Writer(s): Krystin Ver Linden

Don’t you see it?

I wonder what the marketing push for Krystin Ver Linden‘s Alice would have looked like if Antebellum hadn’t already arrived on the scene first. Both films deal with the juxtaposition of slavery and our modern world in a similar way and yet the latter intentionally shielded its truth as a twist while the former exposes it as the point. Rather than deflect and/or deceive, this film’s campaign and synopsis have very clearly revealed that it does not take place during the 1800s. They do so by telling us exactly what Alice’s (Keke Palmer) escape from Paul Bennet’s (Jonny Lee Miller) plantation looks like: 1973. Beyond his forest of forbidden trees lies a paved road, automobiles, and a world where Pam Grier’s theatrical vengeance can cathartically inspire.

Knowing this fact going in alleviates some of that other film’s narrative problems (Antebellum is problematic for many reasons beyond its structure), enough to let audiences experience Ver Linden’s work on its own merits. The linear trajectory unfortunately contains some of its own, though—namely with pacing. This is to be expected since we inherently seek more. To already be aware that Alice will find herself in the “real world” means everything that happens before that point is weighed down by expectations. Finding a balance is tough because spending thirty or more minutes in that space isn’t excessive. It’s necessary to understand the dynamic at play because that is the “real world” to Alice and the other Black “domestics.” We need to see it for motivation purposes alone.

As such, Alice‘s opening third can’t help feeling redundant. There’s a secret marriage (Alice and Gaius Charles‘ Joseph). Abuse by way of whippings in the field and rape in the bedroom. And, of course, public punishments setting examples meant to keep the others in line. But amongst that familiar brutality also lay hints as far as where things are going—the kind of nuanced details that almost make me wish we didn’t know about the 1973 setting beforehand. Stories about Black men falling from the sky with fire in their hands intrigue. Paul carrying a change of clothes beyond the gate that his young son wears upon returning from an extended absence confuses. There only being two white men (Paul and Craig Stark‘s Aaron) and one gun surprises.

It all ratchets up our anticipation because we know there must be something more to what’s happening. The opening text that says “Inspired by true events” make it seem as though there’s a conspiracy in play—some widespread attempt by plantations to maintain their unearned power in the south right below the nose (or perhaps with the approval) of local law enforcement. That nothing really comes of that is thus disappointing. Truth was just that: inspiration. Ver Linden was inspired by the idea that some southerners forced Black men and women into being indentured servants if not tricked them into being slaves and decided to run with it for a completely fictitious Blaxploitation romp in the vein of those Grier classics. There’s no big picture here.

This fact doesn’t necessarily ruin the experience, but it might prove a letdown when considering the potential Ver Linden had to make it more. So, don’t expect anything beyond the scope of Alice making good on a promise to leave and come back with help. There’s honestly not much room to do anything else after the middle third’s montage-heavy “education” period wherein Alice learns the truth of what she lived. Add a rather superficial side plot wherein her savior (Common‘s Frank) is reminded of the strength and purpose he possessed during the Civil Rights movement before finding himself tired and defeated and it becomes hard to justify the tenacity of the final third’s actions. A switch is flipped in Alice and Frank just when the plot demands it.

The result is thus a generic dramatic thriller with interesting ideas that are mostly glossed over for clichéd narrative propulsion. There are some great moments (I wish the whole had the same energy as Alice meeting with a woman from her past as played by Alicia Witt), but they are few and far between when compared with conventional point-A to point-B machinations pushing us from beginning to end. The messages being sent are often reduced to trite dialogue and the power of who Frank was is always trivialized in ways that are meant to inspire and yet only feel exploitative instead. These aren’t three-dimensional characters (no matter how good Palmer is despite the material). They’re pieces on a board moved at the behest of the plot’s narrow whims.

And maybe that’s enough if you go in knowing that’s all you’re going to get. Alice isn’t about edification as far as the “true events” that could allow something like this to happen. It’s about catharsis. I think it forgets that itself sometimes, though, and spills over into dramatic heft it cannot shoulder. That’s ultimately its biggest fault: biting off more it can chew when surface level entertainment is what it achieves best. Since that reality is tough to reconcile with the severity of the subject matter, you can’t blame Ver Linden for finding herself in search of more. Whether she succeeds is thus up to you and, if nothing else, the attempt proves she’s willing to take that risk. I look forward to seeing what comes next.

[1] Keke Palmer and Common appear in Alice by Krystin Ver Linden, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute Eliza Morse.
[2] Keke Palmer and Common appear in Alice by Krystin Ver Linden, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute Eliza Morse.
[3] Keke Palmer appears in Alice by Krystin Ver Linden, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute Eliza Morse.

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