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Review: Nine Days

September 24, 2020

By John Corrado

★★★★ (out of 4)

A moving first feature from writer/director Edson Oda, Nine Days is the sort of high concept indie film that I love to discover, using the imaginative premise of souls competing to be born to explore no less than what it means to feel and be alive.

The film takes place in an ethereal space. The main character Will (Winston Duke) lives in an isolated house, where he serves as a sort of otherworldly interviewer, tasked with examining new souls to see if they are worthy of being born.

These souls, who appear in adult human form, are given nine days to prove their worth, and only one will be chosen at the end of the process. Each one will be rigorously tested by Will, and the souls that aren’t chosen will drift away and cease to exist.

A vacancy has just opened up on Earth, and the souls competing to fill it include the very sensitive soul Mike (David Rysdahl), the simple and carefree Alexander (Tony Hale), the hopeless romantic Maria (Arianna Ortiz), and the very pragmatic Kane (Bill Skarsgård). But Will is particularly challenged by Emma (Zazie Beetz), a soul who is more curious and joyful than the other candidates, forcing him to reevaluate his own existence and approach to life.

This is an extraordinary and entirely original premise, and Oda masterfully weaves the film’s fantastical elements into a powerful human drama. Part of Will’s job includes monitoring the souls who have been sent to Earth, watching their lives unfold from a first person perspective on old TV sets, and using VCRs to document their experiences across a series of carefully filed VHS tapes. It’s a concept that wonderfully symbolizes how our memories are organized.

As the film unfolds, Oda compels us to ask questions about our own lives. What would you do if you only had nine days to live? How do you prove that you should be alive? And why, more importantly, do some people choose to give up this gift of being born, by either taking the life of others or taking their own? It’s this last question that rings out most profoundly in Nine Days, and the way that the film explores the pain that leads to suicide is quietly extraordinary.

Oda wrote the screenplay as a way to deal with his own uncle’s death by suicide, and there is incredible catharsis to be found in this story for those of us who have experienced depression. Duke has said that he researched “smiling depression” in preparation for the role, and his subtle, deeply felt performance becomes quite moving to watch. Will is a quiet, contemplative character, and Duke portrays him with a remarkable amount of grace, revealing small nuances through his carefully mannered facial expressions.

The actors portraying the souls in training do an excellent job of depicting the childlike wonder of their characters, whose brief existences are defined by constant discovery. Beetz in particular does a lovely job of portraying a hopeful young soul who, despite the fact she has never been alive, or perhaps because of it, has an incredible amount of life in her. Benedict Wong also delivers a memorable performance as Kyo, a fellow interviewer who is assisting Will throughout the selection process.

Grappling with the deepest of philosophical and existential questions, while still remaining achingly human, Nine Days unfolds as an engaging magical realist fable. Wyatt Garfield’s gorgeous, evocative cinematography, and Antonio Pinto’s lovely musical score, also help the film come alive. It’s a haunting and profound work that serves as an accomplished and completely unique feature debut for Edson Oda, built around a beautiful performance by Winston Duke.

Nine Days premiered at Sundance back in January, and screened online last night in Ontario as part of Cinefest Sudbury. It’s scheduled to be released in Canada on February 5th, 2021.

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