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Sundance movie review: 'Alice' disappoints with potentially intriguing premise

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Sundance movie review: 'Alice' disappoints with potentially intriguing premise
Keke Palmer stars in "Alice." Photo courtesy of the Sundance Institute

LOS ANGELES, Jan. 26 (UPI) -- Alice, which premiered virtually at the Sundance Film Festival, uses the twist from M. Night Shyamalan's The Village as a launching point for a social justice allegory. To discuss Alice is to spoil Shyamalan's 2004 film, so this is a spoiler warning before reading any further.

Alice (Keke Palmer) is a slave owned by Paul Bennet (Jonny Lee Miller). When she escapes, Alice winds up on the freeway. It's not the 1800s after all. It's 1973 and Alice has never seen an automobile before. Frank (Common) stops his truck and takes Alice back to society.

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In The Village, the twist comes in the third act when Shyamalan reveals that his colonial drama was actually a group of modern day families who created their own village on the outskirts of society. Alice asks the question: What if The Village recreated the worst parts of American history?

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Unfortunately, writer/director Krystin Ver Linden's answers are not as interesting as the premise suggests. Also, the film opens with the claim that it's based on a true story. That must mean true stories of slavery, because if someone really perpetrated a modern day plantation to keep practicing slavery, surely we would have heard about it.

The film also asks: What if a slave discovered modern freedom? The answer, unfortunately, is quite simple. Alice likes it.

Alice's introduction to culture and society is very basic. She discovers Jet and Rolling Stone magazine. She mistakes farm workers for slaves, which seems like a reach. The farmer in the film seems like a perfectly reasonable business proprietor, but even the worst treated farm workers aren't comparable to antebellum slaves.

Alice experiences culture, music and politics via reading up on the Black Panthers and Malcolm X. She learns about the Emancipation Proclamation in a book and it's very clunky as Palmer reads aloud.

Try as Palmer might to convey the reaction to a century of history of a woman raised as a slave, it reduces the magnitude of the situation to a Rip Van Winkle story. A montage of reading books does not a social commentary make. Taking Alice to see a Pam Grier movie is fun, but the clip from Coffy is the best part of Alice.

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Given the layers of issues at play in Alice, it's disappointing that the dialogue is mostly right on the nose. Frank reacts to Alice's experience with horror, Alice to the modern world with wonder and indignation. Yet, they can't seem to dig into the ongoing struggles minorities continue to face.

Alice still begs the question of how Bennet perpetrated such an atrocity. Bennet hints at how he hid the modern world from his slaves, but where did he find people in the first place? If Alice was born into this world she wouldn't know any different, but surely they had to kidnap someone at first who'd heard slavery ended.

Unfortunately, Alice cannot get by on provocative ideas alone. Ver Linden's debut feature had a lot of potential but ends up saying little after its shocking premise is revealed.

Fred Topel, who attended film school at Ithaca College, is a UPI entertainment writer based in Los Angeles. He has been a professional film critic since 1999, a Rotten Tomatoes critic since 2001 and a member of the Television Critics Association since 2012. Read more of his work in Entertainment.

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