Atlanta Film Festival 2021 Review: Nine Days

Written by Anna Harrison

85/100

Nine Days has a premise that could have very easily tipped towards the saccharine, spouting platitudes about the meaning of life with obnoxious heavy-handedness. Luckily, director Edson Oda and his creative team decided instead to make a quieter sort of film, one that showcases the strengths and uniqueness of the medium while rising on the backs of its talented ensemble cast to rise to its lofty ambitions, making this high-concept film feel personal and grounded.

Will (Winston Duke) has a bit of an odd job. Living in what seems like the middle of nowhere in a cozy, small home, Will spends his days watching old-fashioned TVs, but instead of playing the news or Netflix, these play out real human lives through a first-person POV camera. Will interacts with almost no one except his friend Kyo (Benedict Wong), instead investing his energy into watching the people-cameras on screen. When his favorite, violinist Amanda (Lisa Starrett), appears to commit suicide by car crash, Will is tasked with picking a new soul to experience life on earth and fill the vacancy. As he puts it, half-wistful, half-regretful, “You are being considered for the amazing opportunity that is life.”

However, Amanda’s death has sent Will into a tailspin. He feels betrayed that a soul he picked for life would throw it away so easily, and begins to obsessively search through his recorded tapes to prove that her death was an accident—some of this denial, we slowly learn, may have come from the fact that Will himself was once alive, and saw himself reflected in Amanda, perhaps even in their manners of death.

So Will searches for a new soul that is tough enough to withstand life so he won’t have to watch something like that happen again. Candidates include Kane (Bill Skarsgård), Alexander (Tony Hale), Maria (Arianna Ortiz), Mike (David Rysdahl), and lastly Emma (Zazie Beetz). Each ensemble member imbues their hopeful soul with life and vigor as Will has them answer questions and watch his TVs to discover what they might be in for. But after nine days, only one soul can be born. The others have to fade out of existence, though as Will whittles down his flock, he tries to recreate a specific moment before they go—a day on the beach, a ride on a bike—revealing a glimpse of the soft man underneath his pencil-pushing, brusque exterior. 

Will finds himself both fascinated by and frustrated with Emma, whose constant questioning and enthusiasm remind Will of his own humanity he has tried to bury under the surface. Beetz is magnetic, though some of her impertinent questions drift a little too far towards Hallmark territory and Emma dips her toe into the Manic Pixie Dream Girl waters. Still, both Duke and Beetz are so game that it becomes hard to take your eyes off of them. The supporting cast, too, delivers uniformly superb performances, most especially Tony Hale, whose laidback Alexander provides the most comedy in the film, though he is not afraid to let loose in the more dramatic scenes. But it’s really Winston Duke’s movie, and he owns it. (He also served as an executive producer.)

By taking a small-scale approach to this big-ideas film, Oda by and large keeps Nine Days from waxing too philosophical. Aside from a Walt Whitman poem towards the end, there are no big speeches on the Meaning of Life, which conversely makes the film much more effective at conveying its message (not to cast aspersion on the Whitman poem; it goes big, but hits all the right beats), though it leaves things open-ended enough to where the audience can graft on their own philosophical ideas. The film looks lovely, too, despite being confined largely to Will’s small house, and the music from Antonio Pinto plucks on all the right heartstrings. 

Nine Days is proof of the magic that can happen when the right aspect coalesce on a movie screen: a book would deny us the powerful human performances, a play would relegate the gorgeous views to our head, but in film, all these aspects can come together as one, demonstrating the unequivocal power of cinema. 

Nine Days Trailer

Nine Days played at the 2021 Atlanta Film Festival. Theatrical Wide Release is scheduled for August 6th.

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

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