The opening title card of writer-director Krystin Ver Linden’s feature film debut “Alice” says, “Inspired by true events,” and it could be argued that these words are more than metaphorically true, even if you don’t know the concept of the film beforehand.
Keke Palmer plays the title heroine, a woman enslaved on a 19th century Georgia plantation overseen by the viciously cruel Paul (Jonny Lee Miller). The first shot of the film sees her running for her life until she gets to a clearing, at which point her face opens up in shock and dismay, and she cries, “No!”
Ver Linden’s screenplay for “Alice” is very carefully structured. We flash back from that “No!” of hers to life on the plantation, which is given a poisonously incongruous sort of visual sumptuousness by cinematographer Alex Disenhof (Apple TV+’s “The Mosquito Coast”). We see a shot of Paul from the porch overseeing his captives that gives us a sense of the density of the field they are working. In an instant, we feel the suffocation of the plantation, where even the moss hanging down from the trees looks like tendrils that are meant to ensnare and to trap.
There is a shot of a graveyard where the dead among Alice’s people have been buried. Ver Linden cuts to a close-up of a dead bug on the ground and then shows us Paul’s foot stepping on it; what makes this shot effective is the crunching sound of the bug’s dead body under that foot. Ver Linden doesn’t linger over the symbolism or underline it. She sets it up, she makes it work, and she moves on.
We are kept on the plantation with Alice for around 36 minutes of the film’s running time, at which point the movie circles back to her crying “No!” again after running away, and this is the perfect amount of screen time for the reveal that Ver Linden has planned. She knows that we need to be immersed just enough in the unbearable plantation world so that when Alice sees a car driving by on a highway, it feels like just as much of a relief and a shock to the audience as it does to her.
For Alice has run away from the plantation only to discover that it is 1973, and she is soon picked up by a sympathetic guy in a truck named Frank (Common), who takes her to a hospital to get looked at. While there, Alice takes in the proud, brazen faces of Pam Grier on the cover of “Jet” magazine and Diana Ross on the cover of “Rolling Stone.” Palmer gets a beautiful kind of slow wonder into the way Alice softly says, “Rolling Stone,” as if she is waking up from a nightmare and is now somehow entering a paradise-like dream.
Palmer has a difficult role in “Alice” because she is the center of the movie, and she mainly has to play pain and confusion without ever making that monotonous. Surely she was tempted in the second half of the film to lighten her effects in order to give us some relief, but Palmer stays true to the character of Alice as she has been dramatized in the first section of the film. Someone as brutalized as Alice isn’t going to adapt quickly to freedom, or ever forget the way she has lived.
Ver Linden never goes the commercial route here with her high-concept idea. Like Palmer, she stays true to her goal but does give the audience several satisfying moments that call for applause, like when Alice eases into a more powerful look and emerges with a full Afro after being exposed to the example of Grier and Angela Davis. When Paul takes Alice to see Grier in “Coffy,” Alice instinctively understands something about movies when she says afterward, “She wasn’t real, was she? But what she believed in, what she stood for was.”
Ver Linden is trying to do a lot in this first movie. The only small problem is that she sets up Frank’s character in a way that would seem to call for another scene or two. His backstory as a wounded revolutionary is strong enough for its own movie, and Common provides such a steady and focused presence that the man he is playing always seems real even when he is most needed as a plot device.
Another title card during the end credits dedicates the film to African Americans who “remained enslaved” in the 20th century — and that carries a sting, even after Ver Linden has shown us Alice taking direct inspiration from Pam Grier, in her own sorrowful way, in the final sequence of a film that earns its catharsis.
“Alice” opens in US theaters March 18.