Krystin Ver Linden’s first movie Alice comes with the assurance that it’s based on true events, one of those vague guarantees that lingers in your mind as the movie unfolds and what you think you’re watching turns out to be something very, very different. Factuality is often a moot point in film – with his terrible 1957 space vampire flick Plan 9 from outer space, Ed Wood even tried reverse psychology, asking viewers, “Can you prove this didn’t happen?” But with a deft slave-drama-slash-revenge thriller, it immediately raises questions of taste and decency: Is this really the appropriate vehicle for a meditation on civil rights? Surprisingly, Ver Linden’s film walks this tightrope very well. There are wobbles to be sure, but the engagement of its cast keeps its intentions pure even when the storytelling falters, which it often does.
There’s no way to argue Alice properly without revealing the film’s big twist, which is loosely referenced in publicity materials and yet occurs 37 minutes into its runtime. Until then, Alice is the favorite slave of an isolated plantation ruled – literally with an iron rod – by the ruthless Paul Bennet (a grizzled good performance by Jonny Lee Miller). At first, Alice (Keke Palmer) settles into married life, dreaming of the life that must be out there somewhere. She sees her family and friends brutalized, and herself falls into her master’s bad graces, which leads to her being tied up, beaten and chained on the mansion’s lawn during the night. When freed, Alice fights Paul, blinds him in one eye, and escapes.
After a dramatic flight through the woods, Alice emerges flashing into the sunny glare of a Georgia highway, where she encounters Frank (played by Common), who nearly knocks her down when she passes out in front of his truck. Frank takes her to the hospital, assuming Alice is suffering from a concussion, but when the authorities make arrangements to have Alice committed to a sanitarium for psychological check-up, Frank returns and sneaks her out. (“That’s where they take you and drill your brains out,” he sagely warns.) In Frank’s apartment, Alice learns that it’s 1973, that slavery has long been abolished, and that his nemesis Bennet’s sister is in the phone book, and she also begins the quick but stylish transition into an avenging angel with a cool wardrobe and a big defiant afro.
The shift from a fake past to a stylized present is well done, but, as always in these fish-out-of-water scenarios, time flies as we watch Alice acclimate to the 70s, learning the closures flash, Sanford and sons, and Pam Grier (“The Baddest Chick Around”, according to Jet magazine). Frank plays his Stevie Wonder side two”Inner visions, and off she goes, accumulating information from an encyclopedia that reveals everything about MLK, Malcolm X, Angela Davis, and many more. As the film completes her shift, Alice confronts an unrepentant figure from her past as a slave in a coffee shop where everyone is talking about coffee so much it starts to look like a bizarre, subliminal invocation of Pam’s vigilante movie. Grier from 1973. Coffy. If so, that’s pretty nifty. What’s not so clever is that in the next scene, Frank takes Alice to the movies to see Coffy, and, to be honest, the movie never really recovers from a weird mix of reality, fiction, and meta-fiction that even Quentin Tarantino might have second thoughts about.
For all its flaws, however, Alice is always interesting, and Palmer has a lot to do with it, carrying the film with grace and simplicity in a part that could possibly end another actor. The same goes for Common, whose Frank comes with so much baggage that his overbearing big brother, who supports Nixon, is the least of his worries. Ironically, it’s these attempts to tame the film’s wilder B-movie elements that draw her in, and after the initial jitters about the film’s relevance, it becomes clear that Alice could have been a little, if not a lot , more there. Maybe not Django Unchained there, but certainly much braver.
“Freedom is a word you’ll never understand in a million years,” Alice says before embarking on her final roaring rampage. “I a m freedom,” she says.
It is the movie you want to see. If only there were more.
Alice makes its world premiere in the American drama section of Sundance. The film will be released in theaters in the United States on March 18 via Roadside Attractions.