Sometimes you write 13 screenplays, and then three go into production almost at once. That was the fate of Macedonian-born, Australian-based filmmaker Goran Stolevski, who never expected that one of his weirdest flights of fancy, the bracing body-snatching tale You Won’t Be Alone, would wind up being the first cab off the rank. Mind you, it seems spookily appropriate that those numbers – 13 and three – are both strongly associated with the supernatural. So perhaps wiccan-approving goddesses were on his side? Their patronage might also explain why his sophomore offering, whirlwind gay romance Of an Age, has been selected as the official opening night gala of the Melbourne International Film Festival.
Whatever dark magic may or may not be at work here, it’s lucky for us that the spirits approved with all their earthen, maternal magic. You Won’t Be Alone is a weird and wonderful creature that may not lend itself to easy categorisation – let’s go for dark fairy tale-infused, trans-folkloric coming-of-age horror of sorts – but it’s undoubtedly brilliant.
Debuting at Sundance before wowing audiences at the Sydney Film Festival, the freaky but surreally sweet film mines a deep vein of unnervingly brutal fairy tales. Anyone familiar with the Brothers Grimm will see the bones of their icky oddities here, long before Disney got their hands on and pastel pristine-d them.
Shot in Serbia, standing in for Stolevski’s mother country, we first spy our setting – the misty, forest-entangled heights of a mountainous village – via a cat's-eye view. But just as you’re aww-ing, a hissing shriek followed by a visceral tearing sound suggests that said moggy is cruelly dispatched just off-screen. And yet, we then watch it wind its way towards the hut of a harried mother (Kamka Tocinovski). Anyone who has seen or read Pet Sematary will know this is NOT GOOD.
Sure enough, the cat soon reveals itself, via another gruesome-sounding ending, to be an ancient and battle-scarred witch (or wolf-eateress) hunting in flesh and fur disguise. Old Maid Maria (a spectacular Anamaria Marinca) is after an apprentice, or witches’ spit. Bargaining for more time with her infant daughter, the desperate mother promises to hand her over in 16 years’ time. Thinking she can outsmart the ghoul, the mother makes a dash for a holy place in the nearby cave system where she keeps her daughter hidden, hoping the heavens will protect her.
Jumping forward to the date that would seal her fate, we meet the now 16-year-old Nevena, now played with wide-eyed innocence by a remarkable Sara Klimoska. Not only was her tongue literally stolen by Maria, but Nevena’s unnatural isolation has also ensured that she thinks like a feral animal. Her broken, abstractly poetic inner monologue is realised in a roaring muffle that stands apart from all other dialogue in the film.
As she attempts to make her way in the world under the cruel tutelage of Maria, the witch-borne power to seize new bodies allows her to take on many new identities, both human and not. It’s an excellent set-up for Stolevski to play with emerging identity in a thrillingly queer way that upends gender and sexuality. Keep an eye out for eyebrow-raising turns from indie stars Noomi Rapace (A Ghost Story), Alice Englert (Ginger and Rosa) and Félix Maritaud (BPM) in a film that smart folks were clearly scrambling over themselves to be involved in.
And why wouldn’t they? Ethereally shot on location by cinematographer Matthew Chuang and set to a haunting score by Mark Bradshaw, You Won’t Be Alone is mesmerising from the outset. Beating with a wild and restless energy, the film’s fearsome but ferociously beautiful heart marks the emergence of a rare and remarkable talent. May the Triple Goddess ever favour Stolevski.
You Won’t Be Alone has one more screening at the Sydney Film Festival on Tuesday, June 21. Snap up your tickets here.