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Keke Palmer stars in Alice.Kyle Kaplan/Courtesy of Vertical Entertainment and Roadside Attractions

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Written and directed by Krystin Ver Linden

Starring Keke Palmer, Common and Jonny Lee Miller

Classification R; 100 minutes

Opens in theatres March 18

When the trailer for writer-director Krystin Ver Linden’s debut feature Alice dropped the other month, audiences were quick to draw easy comparisons to 2020′s absolute failure of a horror film, Antebellum. Like Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz’s movie, the novelty of Alice lies in its sudden shift from supposed past to actual present. In both films, enslaved Black women learn they have been lied to by their captors and, rather than living in the Antebellum South, they are actually in a more recent contemporary time.

In Alice, this present is 1973. And rather than Antebellum’s ham-fisted attempt at a wholly misunderstood Afro-Futurism, what Ver Linden instead works with is largely the Blaxploitation genre, and the kind of play that the mode allows. Her film’s first act follows the eponymous Alice (Keke Palmer), a young enslaved woman on a rural Georgia plantation who is being held as a “domestic” by the self-righteous and vicious slave owner Paul Bennett (Jonny Lee Miller). After Alice and her husband Joseph (Gaius Charles) fail in their first attempt to escape as a couple, Alice seizes an opportunity to overcome Paul and makes her bid for freedom on her own.

While this action sets up Ver Linden’s dramatic and stylistic ambitions, however spotty they may be in their undertaking, it also seems as if we are only being led through the motions of what a story like this might look like. Even though a substantial portion of the film is dedicated to Alice’s readjustment to contemporary life, the end product feels both rushed and unfinished. In the span of just two days, Alice transforms from meek and confused to a sartorial and emotional simulacra of Foxy Brown-era Pam Grier. She also seems to have learned the entirety of Black American history, from chattel slavery to Jim Crow to the Black Panther movement and onward, in one 48-hour period.

It is understandable that Ver Linden would want to lean into the fun and vengeance that Blaxploitation offers (her citation of Quentin Tarantino as a mentor will be clear to many), but Alice lacks the genre’s trademark energy and attitude. Instead, we’re forced to endure a lifeless plot and one-note characters whose own development is both everywhere and nowhere.

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Palmer and Common in Alice, opening in theatres March 18.Eliza Morse/Courtesy of Vertical Entertainment and Roadside Attractions

The writing is also uneven, underdeveloped, and doesn’t seem to care to resolve its own plot points with clarity or depth, relying instead on heavy-handed symbolism or just, frankly, vibes. Dialogue is leaden and drawn out, with Palmer and co-star Common often appearing as if they have been asked to improvise but lack the skills or support to do so.

As charismatic and lovable as she is off-screen, Palmer lacks the dramatic range needed for the role and often lands her lines with an unintended comedic or ironic effect. And rather than play to Palmer’s strengths as a magnetic persona, the film chooses instead to sit in these awkward moments with a strange tenacity.

Which is perhaps the most disappointing part of Alice. It not only fails at its own project, but it leans into this failure with such misplaced confidence. Ver Linden has the potential to twist and upend expectations – to play with genre and character in a way that reworks and remixes both film history and storytelling. Instead, she spends the majority of her film’s runtime vaguely approaching those intentions rather than actually materializing them. It is a tiring series of runarounds that viewers will lose patience for.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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