Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Roadside Attractions and Vertical Entertainment will release the film in theaters on Friday, March 18.
Alice knows there’s something else out there. There has to be. Born and raised on an antebellum plantation somewhere smack-dab in the middle of nowhere Georgia, Alice (Keke Palmer) may have never gone more than a mile or two beyond the boundaries of the Bennet place, but something is calling for her. Blame her evil boss Paul Bennet (a truly chilling and unrecognizable Jonny Lee Miller) who taught his favorite “domestic” how to read early, but only so she could read to him, and who somehow never realized she might use her intellectual curiosity for other ends. As Krystin Ver Linden’s ambitious and uneasy “Alice” opens, our heroine has already made her mind up, but where her desire to break free will lead her will shock everyone.
The film will inevitably — and correctly — draw comparisons to “Antebellum,” another slavery-themed drama beset with tricks and twists. But while that film, starring Janelle Monae (who, like Palmer here, was the best thing about it), mostly hinged on misdirection and strange timeline choices, “Alice” has other problems when it comes to its basic coherence. Ver Linden’s film may play out mostly in a straight-forward chronology, but that choice doesn’t do “Alice” (or Alice) any favors, expecting major revelations and revolutions to happen in the exact minimum of time.
Before we can get there, however, Alice and her fellow slaves (including Gaius Charles as her secret husband Joseph, doing solid work in a tough role) are stuck in hell. And while they don’t quite know just how terrible their world is, it’s not hard to realize that something is very wrong, very evil in the way they’ve been forced to live their lives.
A series of upheavals, both small and large, continue to puncture Alice’s already on-alert consciousness, from the return of Paul’s young son Daniel (who seems to have brought a very strange toy back with him) to the dementia-addled ruminations of Paul’s mother (who tells Alice she used to “be a dancer” in “Chicago,” and what the hell does any of that mean?). Joseph is doing his own investigations, too, and when he’s told about a man from another world who fell through the sky many years ago, he can barely wait to dig up his grave, which holds its own strange artifact.
Things get worse (and certainly weirder), and when Alice is finally pushed to run for her life after a gruesome event, she doesn’t stop running until she reaches the highway. The what? That “Alice” actually takes place in the year 1973 is no secret — and neither is the fact that it was inspired by true stories, though Ver Linden only references that element with an epigraph during the film’s opening credits, never expounding on them again — despite that “twist” not taking root until more than a third of the film has ticked by.
Fortunately, Alice is picked up by a kindly trucker in the form of Common (always a steady, warm presence, but here given little to do beyond that), whose Frank has his own secrets and reasons for wanting to assist Alice. It’s very lucky that Alice finds a nice guy like Frank, that’s true, but as Frank’s own past begins to reveal itself — entirely through Alice’s own snooping, not any heavy lifting from Common himself — her own connection to the real world becomes nothing more than an emblem for everything else. (Or, put more bluntly: pretty neat that Alice would land in the home of a social revolutionary who can teach her everything from civil rights history to resistance techniques and even how to do her hair like Ms. Pam Grier!)
Palmer, who also produced the film, is tasked with playing a full range of emotions, not just from scene to scene, but often moment to moment. While the tone of “Alice” veers wildly in its second half, as does Ver Linden’s hold on basic character motivation and plot twists, Palmer’s stellar performance holds it together. She — and “Alice” as a whole — are curious and terrified, overjoyed and disgusted, eager and angry, but only Palmer makes any of that believable. Everything else bleeds into self-serious homage, too straight to be fun, too flimsy to be dramatic. Even with the built-in pain of Alice’s backstory, “Alice” is far more interested in pushing toward a blaxploitation-inflected second half than reckoning with anything that came before.
Thrust into the real world for just hours, Alice inevitably begins to feel out her surroundings the best way she knows how: reading. She steeps herself in pop culture and politics and its big names — Pam Grier, Diana Ross, Angela Davis, Fred Hampton, Malcolm X, and more — and while Alice’s curious nature offers one coping mechanism, that she would not try to reckon with what has happened to her in any other way (again, literal hours after breaking free from the plantation) is baffling, strange, and often silly. (That Ver Linden’s direction of the drama-heavy first act is relatively accomplished makes this all feel worse.)
Eventually, Alice hatches a revenge plan that feels entirely constructed for cinematic ends, wholly unbelievable, relentlessly “cool,” and terribly dangerous to boot. Her inspirations may be rooted in real revolution and true struggle, but after such a painful start, this twist toward purely entertainment-driven conclusions doesn’t feel triumphant, it feels fake. Does it look badass? Sure. Does it say anything new? No. Alice knows as well as we do: There has to be something else out there, because this isn’t enough, either for her or her audience.
“Alice” premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Roadside Attractions and Vertical Entertainment will release it on March 18, 2022.