Movies · Reviews

‘Alice’ is an Uneasy But Bold Reckoning with America’s Grotesque “History”

The less you know about it, the better, but it’s probably already too late for you.
Alice Movie Sundance Review
Vertical Entertainment / Roadside Attractions
By  · Published on January 27th, 2022

This review of Krystin Ver Linden’s Alice is part of our 2022 Sundance Film Festival coverage. For more reviews and essays, visit our Sundance tab.

A joy of attending film festivals is that you enter most movies knowing almost nothing about them. Trailers have not been cut. Descriptions are frequently vague or misleading. Online reaction hasn’t rendered its final judgment on the subject matter. The movie begins, and it just is, and you have to compute it in real-time without any preconceived notions to retreat upon. It’s all surprise, and surprise is often the most important weapon robbed from a filmmaker.

I wish I went into the movie Alice carrying only this logline found on IMDb: “A slave in the antebellum South who escapes from her secluded plantation only to discover a shocking reality that lies beyond the tree line.” Maybe if the details around that “shocking reality” were kept hidden from me, and I were allowed to get smacked by them, the surprise would have been enough to carry me through its weaker elements. Writer-director Krystin Ver Linden has concocted a big-swing movie, and the attempt is magnificent in its own right.

So, if you want that unsullied experience, stop reading, but even the photo above probably reveals too much, and now it’s too late.

Frustratingly, the Sundance description puts it all out there. Alice (Keke Palmer) indeed appears to be a slave in the antebellum South. She toils on a Georgia plantation operated by Paul (Johnny Lee Miller). For the movie’s first half, we’re trapped in her horrific experience, watching her and her family brutalized in graphic detail. Strange anachronisms begin to occur, and when Alice flees after a particularly violent encounter, she charges into the woods. In the clearing, she finds 1973.

When a semi nearly crushes her, Alice faints on the freeway asphalt. Frank (Common), the driver, pulls Alice into his cab and rushes her to the hospital. From there, she wanders into a history lesson explaining her alien present. Amidst her wonder and astonishment, she confronts the promise of the Civil Rights Movement and the disillusionment that’s grown inside her new friend. And, maybe most significantly, she watches Pam Grier reign supreme in the Blaxploitation classic Coffy.

The hard switch from the plantation to modern Savannah is uncomfortably jolting. Alice‘s first section is frightfully familiar, pushing its audience into America’s unforgivable foundation. We’ve seen these grotesque depictions before, but that’s no reason to ignore them. These monstrous sins are in our DNA, and they should forever live in our imagination.

In the jump to the 1970s, what’s weird is how everyone in the script takes it with ease and how quickly horror makes way for comedy. Alice’s initial questions cause Frank concern, but he’s not ready to immediately dump her in an institution. He takes her back to his place, and Alice rapidly adjusts to magical telephones, record players, and television sets. You’re waiting for the incongruity to reiterate the previous half’s atrocity, but the movie prefers to springboard into action retribution, which is really just another gateway into more absurdity, and it muddies the wretched ugliness implied in Alice‘s final revelation.

Palmer goes a long way in threading the script’s loose logic. Her Alice is a sponge. On her face, we watch her quietly process a torrent of information. The movie won’t let us know what’s going on inside, but the actress controls our curiosity. She gets us to ask the question and want the answer, but we must be satisfied with the leaps Ver Linden provides.

Common is fun enough. He’s mostly there to explain things to Alice and suggest a residual pain leftover from Frank’s activism past. He and Palmer have strong chemistry amongst the exposition, and they thrive when celebrating their mutual admiration for Pam Grier. Watching them watch her is an extraordinary enchantment.

The movie’s most enthusiastic bits revolve around those climactic moments when it’s time to tool up a la Coffy. There is a satisfaction to be found in their vengeance, but Krystin Ver Linden doesn’t even go as hard as the films that inspired her protagonist. The retribution Alice provides can’t possibly match the heartless wickedness of her enemy, and the movie chooses not to try. It takes us right up to the edge and then backs off quizically, leaving us to ponder, why take this route at all?

Alice certainly keeps you on your toes. You never quite know what kind of movie you’re watching. Is it a reckoning or a ride? Ver Linden doesn’t let her audience settle, and there’s pleasure somewhere in the unease, in the imbalance. You can’t shake the movie, and you’ll seek out others who’ve gone through it as well. The conversation won’t end at the credits.

If the movie could have kept its twist secret, it could have recreated Alice’s confusion in those watching. When she crosses through the woods and hits that freeway, it’s such an awesome moment you’re jealous you can’t share it with her. The high-concept is out there to put butts in the seat, but it cheats the script. You’re always two steps ahead of Alice, and that’s disappointing.

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Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he's rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)