Krystin Ver Linden’s “Alice” is a righteous fable about a Black woman (Keke Palmer) who escapes from an isolated Georgia plantation that’s enslaved her, her husband (Gaius Charles) and her family for generations, and discovers a wonderland just outside the property line: 1973 America, where she learns she’s been emancipated for a century. “I never told anyone they had to stay,” her Bible-thumping captor Mr. Paul (Jonny Lee Miller) sputters by way of cheap justification. “I just never told them they could go.”
First, Alice sobs; then, she’s furious. All this time — through all this suffering — freedom was just a few miles away. The curvaceous yellow typeface of the opening titles promises that Alice will get her Blaxploitation-inspired revenge on the white family still imprisoning 11 of her loved ones. She even watches “Coffy” for motivation, staring up at Pam Grier with the awe of seeing her inner goddess strut the earth, and somehow, within two days of her escape, finds a pair of perfectly fitting leather pants just in time for the climax. But “Alice” is only half-throwback. The horror in Ver Linden’s tale is that Alice’s mind has been held hostage, so it seeks true liberation through books, not guns. (Okay, some guns.)
The power of the film — and of Palmer’s phenomenal performance — is watching Alice grow into her voice. For the first half of the film, she doesn’t even know the vocabulary to describe her torment to outsiders who might be able to help. Mr. Paul’s estate only used the word “domestics,” not “slaves,” and from what she first sees of the modern world, she’s not convinced her treatment was unusual. Gazing out of the window of her inadvertent rescuer’s truck — the man, Frank (Common), is a Civil Rights activist who’s grown embittered by the lack of progress made in his own life — Alice still sees fields of workers toiling the fields. Only this farm belongs to Frank’s brother (David Andrew Nash), who exists only to make the point that today’s immigrant workers are also treated as subhuman.
Under Mr. Paul’s abuse, Alice was too scared to speak. Once out of his reach, she lets out a scream. And she keeps screaming, and holding herself, and crying, until education gives her the tools to fight back in the form Ver Linden wants to see: a confident woman staring her oppressors in the eye and saying exactly what she thinks of them. The film is in a such a rush to get to these scenes, however, that its pacing slips from methodical to fantastical. At first, Ver Linden savors watching Alice learn the small wonders of her actual era: Zippo lighters, mirrors, mustard and baloney sandwiches, magazine covers of Grier and Diana Ross looking proud to be strong, Black and beautiful. We, in turn, love experiencing these firsts through Palmer’s expressive eyes.
But once Alice opens an encyclopedia, the film slips into an inspirational montage of Malcolm X and Angela Davis, and over an afternoon, Alice quite literally closes the book on who she was and emerges as an intellectual avenging angel. The character becomes an icon — a screen ideal of rousing, fabulous empowerment — at the expense of her tenderly constructed humanity.
Still, there’s much to admire about Ver Linden’s attention-grabbing debut. (In interviews, she’s called Quentin Tarantino her “mentor,” and that’s evident in the film’s nods to “Django Unchained” and “Jackie Brown.”) While her big ending is calculated for easy applause, it’s the small details that sell you on Ver Linden’s filmmaking talent: the inclusion of minor characters like Mr. Paul’s sulky young son (Jaxon Goldenberg), or a key meeting at a 1950s diner where the decor hints at a cultural romanticization of that “simpler” era before Martin Luther King declared his dream. Ver Linden notices Alice’s paralysis when Frank enters her bedroom — in that small pause, we see decades of sexual abuse — or the way he stores his clippings about the Black Panther party in a memory box. What Alice is thrilled to discover in these, he sees as his failed and bittersweet past.
Through it all, there’s a standout score from five composers — Common, Patrick Warren, Karriem Riggins, Isaiah Sharkey, and Burniss Travis — who together assemble an eclectic mix of trills and rumbles and strings that pluck and fret, without worrying whether the end result is harmonious. The music is insistently alive, and it declares Alice’s right to exist even when she can’t speak on her own behalf.