Masquerading as a time travel parody within other genres “Alice” offers an inventive take on exploitation cinema.
Alice, an escaped slave, is transported to the early 1970s. It’s like the exact opposite plot of 2020’s “Antebellum” where a contemporary woman in a way that cannot be explained is transported back to a slave plantation.
“Alice” at heart is a Pam Grier revenge thriller that uses the most unique type of magical realism you’re likely to see in a movie this year. Imagine the love child of the 1973 crimesploitation flick “Coffy” and the 2018 comedy fantasy “Sorry to Bother You” and you have some inkling of the lengths where first time writer/director Krystin Ver Linden wants to take the audience.
Alice is a great name for a lead character: whether it’s a book by Lewis Carroll; Wim Wender’s “Alice in the Cities;” Woody Allen’s “Alice,” which is actually a film about Chinese herbal medicine; “Still Alice,” which won Julianne Moore an Oscar; or even the stoner comedy “I Love You, Alice B. Toklas.”
A typical time travel movie will at one point acknowledge the concept by explaining the process. At times this can be prescient such as in “Back To The Future” or “Primer.”
Other films involve time travel as a fantasy element. Think “Somewhere in Time,” or “Peggy Sue Got Married.” “Alice” envisions the cross-pollination of genres where “we come to the place where the road and the sky collide.” (Quoting Jackson Browne.)
Even more to the point, “Alice” treats time displacement as a metaphor for transmigration. (Quoting Stevie Wonder.) “So damn glad he let me try it again, because the last time on Earth I lived a whole world of sin … Going to keep on trying, ’til I reach my highest ground.”
“Alice” vacillates in tone so often that the story becomes a fairy tale where the past and the present (1973) exist in equal dimensions.
Stevie Wonder and telephones exist on the same temporal plane with plantation politics.
After a lengthy first act that shows Alice being oppressed as a slave by the plantation master she manages to flee through the nearby woods. After a few miles Alice somehow steps into the 1970s, finding herself on a highway.
Jonny Lee Miller plays the master and you night not recognize him if you’re picturing one of the stars of “Trainspotting.” Miller sports an sunken visage with thinning hair and an evil grin.
Frank the farmer stops his truck to help the obviously distressed lady in the middle of the road. Common in the very likable role of Frank takes Alice to a hospital only to rescue her from the same establishment when he realizes they will send this lady-with-no–idea-as-to-her-identity to an asylum.
Keke Palmer as Alice brings a subdued sense of conflict to her character. The audience sees events through her eyes when she’s being raped with the same diffidence as when she’s bringing down the house.
Once back at his modest hipster apartment Frank tries to introduce Alice to the present day. Scenes of dancing to Stevie Wonder or using a touch tone phone are heartfelt and welcome, letting us know the film may have a bleak trajectory but not without a gilt lining.
In Ver Linden’s version of magical realism the past and the future are like a mountain range where you can look down and see both at the same time.
Alice has an epiphany after confronting a relative of her former master, whom she looked up in the phone book and called. The film then makes us wonder if the distant relative is really the actual relative (Alicia Witt playing the demur plantation mistress) who like Alice has also found a way to transverse the space time continuum that dictates reality in “Alice.”
Before all is said and done Alice arms herself with firepower and, with the assistance of Frank, returns to the point in the woods where the past is now. And she brings the local fire department to help torch the past.
You have no idea how hard “Alice,” currently in select theaters, will rock your theatrical experience.