Premiering in the U.S. Dramatic competition slate at Sundance, Krystin Ver Linden’s “Alice” is a film where fiction meets reality, as one woman straddles two different generations.
Keke Palmer is Alice, a slave on a tucked-away Georgia plantation run by Old Testament-thumping Paul Bennet (Jonny Lee Miller). Alice secretly marries Joseph (Sinqua Walls) and tries to take solace in as much wedded bliss a slave could find. She bears witness to daily brutality, as Bennet is a vicious and violent man.
After angering him and being bound and chained up like an animal, Alice finds herself in a struggle, eventually stabbing him in the eye and escaping from the plantation.
The following description should be a spoiler, but it is mentioned in all the film’s promotions. After running through the woods, she finds herself on a backroads highway and is almost hit by… a truck!
In an obvious nod to M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Village” and 2020’s similarly-themed “Antebellum”, Alice finds herself thrust into a modern world she didn’t know existed. This time it is 1973.
It is a known fact that, more than one hundred years after the Emancipation Proclamation many black people in the deep South had no idea they were free. These people were continually forced to work and were tortured and raped.
Linden’s screenplay uses this as her jumping off point for her examination of the racist South, Civil Rights, and the liberation of black people.
The driver of the truck Frank (Common) is a former political activist who lets Alice stay with him while she figures out what is happening. It is over the next week that Alice jumps in with both feet learning about the struggles of black people in America.
Frank tells her of his mother’s fight for justice, gives her books to read and tells her about Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Angela Davis, and even Pam Grier, in whom Alice finds a hero (and a stylistic sister).
It has been refreshing over the last decade to see genre films use thrilling and creative ways to tell stories of black culture and the history of the fight for equal human rights. The best examples being Nia DiCosta’s “Candyman,” HBO’s “Lovecraft Country,” and Jordan Peele’s double creative-whammy of “Get Out” and “Us.”
As writer and director, Krystin Ver Linden’s sights are set high and her intentions noble, but “Alice” fails to find a sustainable interest. This is not to say Linden’s film is a failure, there are some very good things within.
Keke Palmer (who also produced this film) is magnificent as the titular character. The actress is allowed to run the gamut of emotions and infuses her character with an inner (and ultimately outer) strength that is the center of the film’s strength. Palmer’s great work keeps the revolutionary spirit of the piece alive.
Once Alice’s eyes and mind are fully awakened, she takes her newfound power and seeks a plan of revenge on the racists who thought they owned her. With Frank’s reluctant help, the two arm themselves with guns and the soul of Black Power and set out to free the modern-day prisoners that shared “life” on Bennet’s plantation.
Common does well enough as Frank, but he isn’t given enough to do beyond an introductory bonding with Alice. While he is the catalyst to freeing her mind with knowledge, the screenplay too often has him leave the scene and uses tired montage to portray Alice’s awakening. The conversation about race and equality is too important and Linden’s film could have benefited from deeper dialogues between Alice and Frank.
The filmmakers achieve a good sense of place (twofold) with the depiction of plantation existence in the 1800s (although the actual time is dramatically deceitful) and of the revolution-swept early seventies. The production design is completely believable, and nothing feels overly nostalgic.
While certain films have found a balance in social commentary and pure entertainment, Linden’s screenplay appears anxious to get to the excitement and hurries over the history. While the film doesn’t veer off-course too badly, it loses steam and a bit of character strength in the process.
“Alice” is a film that should be seen, but one that tries to check too many boxes. It has a lot to say but fails to give itself enough of a platform to speak its full truth.