In ‘Alice,’ Keke Palmer and Common star

Sundance Review: Keke Palmer & Common In ‘alice’

The assurance that Krystin Ver Linden’s debut film Alice is based on genuine events lingers in the back of your mind as the movie unfolds and what you believe you’re watching turns out to be something very, very different. In his legendarily bad 1957 space vampire film Plan 9 from Outer Space, Ed Wood even attempted reverse psychology, asking audiences, “Can you prove that it didn’t happen?”

However, a polished slave drama/revenge thriller begs immediate problems of taste and decency: is this the correct medium for a Civil Rights meditation? Surprisingly, Ver Linden’s picture does a fantastic job at walking that fine line. There are flaws, but her cast’s dedication keeps her intentions pure even when the plot falters, which happens frequently.

There’s no way to talk about Alice without exposing the film’s huge twist, which is openly mentioned in promotional materials but occurs 37 minutes into the film. Until then, Alice is a privileged slave on a remote estate commanded by the brutal Paul Bennet with an iron rod (a good, grizzled performance from Jonny Lee Miller).

Alice (Keke Palmer) is settling into married life at the start of the film, dreaming of the life that must be out there someplace. She witnesses the brutalization of her family and friends, and she falls into her master’s bad graces, resulting in her being tied up, beaten, and chained up on the mansion’s lawn overnight. Alice assaults Paul after being released, blinds him in one eye, and flees.

Alice emerges blinking into the sunny glare of a Georgia motorway after a dramatic flight through the woods, where she meets Frank (played by Common), who nearly runs her over when she faints in front of his truck. Frank takes Alice to the hospital, presuming she has a concussion, but when the authorities try to have Alice committed to a psychiatric facility for a mental evaluation, Frank returns and sneaks her out (“That’s where they take you and drill your brains out,” he wisely warns).

Alice discovers the year is 1973, that slavery has been abolished, and that her antagonist Bennet’s sister is listed in the phone book in Frank’s apartment. With sleek clothing and a large, defiant Afro, she also begins the quick but stylish transformation into an avenging angel.

The transition from a fictitious past to a stylized present is effectively handled, but time drags as Alice adjusts to the 1970s, learning about zip fasteners, Sanford and Son, and Pam Grier (“The Baddest Chick Around,” according to Jet magazine), as it always does in these fish-out-of-water scenarios.

Frank puts on the second side of Stevie Wonder’s “Innervisions,” and she’s off, cramming information from an encyclopedia about MLK, Malcolm X, Angela Davis, and others. As the film shifts gears, Alice faces an unrepentant character from her slave past in a coffee shop where everyone speaks about coffee so much that it feels like an odd, subconscious callback to Pam Grier’s 1973 vigilante picture Coffy. It’s quite ingenious if that’s the case.

What’s less brilliant is that, in the next scene, Frank takes Alice to the movies to see Coffy, and, to be honest, the picture never fully recovers from a bizarre merging of reality, fiction, and meta-fiction that even Quentin Tarantino may question.

Despite its weaknesses, Alice is consistently engaging, thanks in large part to Palmer, who carries the film with grace and simplicity in a role that could easily have been played by another actor. The same can be said of Common’s Frank, who comes with so much baggage that his overbearing, Nixon-supporting big brother is the least of his concerns.

Ironically, it’s these attempts to tame the film’s wilder B-movie elements that bring it down, and after one gets over their first apprehensions about the film’s appropriateness, it’s evident that Alice might have been a little—or maybe a lot—more out there. It’s not quite Django Unchained out there, but it’s certainly braver.

Before she embarks on her final, raging fury, Alice is warned, “Freedom is a term you will never understand in a million years.” “I am freedom,” she retorts.

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