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Nine Days asks important philosophical questions about what constitutes a life well lived

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Writer-director Edson Oda in his feature-length debut helms this supernatural drama about Will (Winston Duke), a reclusive man who conducts interviews with human souls to determine whether they should be given a chance at being born in a process that takes nine days. (124 min.)

SONG OF MYSELF Will (Winston Duke, left) must interview new human souls, like Emma (Zazie Beetz, right), to determine if they're worthy of life, in Nine Days. - PHOTO COURTESY OF 30WEST, BAKED SRUDIOS, AND JUNIPER PRODUCTIONS
  • Photo Courtesy Of 30west, Baked Srudios, And Juniper Productions
  • SONG OF MYSELF Will (Winston Duke, left) must interview new human souls, like Emma (Zazie Beetz, right), to determine if they're worthy of life, in Nine Days.

Glen Sometimes the story is in the telling, and this very simple story is beautifully told and requests a hefty emotional thought experiment of the viewer. Will spends his days watching TV monitors that track the moment-to-moment lives of souls he formerly sent to live out their human existence. He watches—among others—a woman preparing for her blissful wedding, a timid school boy relentlessly bullied by his classmates, and his favorite, Amanda‚ a gifted concert violinist. His only companion is Kyo (Benedict Wong), who comes over for tea and tries to keep Will on an even keel. When Amanda crashes her car before a big recital and dies, her TV screen goes to the "test" pattern, and Will knows that the next day a group of newly created souls will arrive at his desert home, and he'll need to interview them to determine which one is best suited for a chance at a successful life. Unlike Kyo, Will was once alive, and there's a suggestion that Will's life was difficult, which makes him the perfect arbitrator. Will's big conundrum is whether to pick a soul strong enough to endure life's difficulties or someone kind and gentle. It's a salient question. Is it better to go through life protecting yourself from pain or is it better to go with an open heart that can be easily damaged? The two leading candidates for the dichotomy are Kane (Bill Skarsgård) and Emma (Zazie Beetz), respectively, and the various questions and tasks Will assigns them and how they respond also test Will's notions of what a life well lived actually means.

Anna Will is somehow detached from his life before, yet he wears it as a badge—his once being alive makes him feel superior at arbitration, but in reality it only makes him more human. We meet five prospects. The lightness of only being a soul allows them to accept their tasks easily and without question at first; either they make it through to the end or they don't. In the beginning, it seems so easy for the recruits—they don't seem to worry too much, or wonder. The weight of mortality doesn't exist in their world, but soon we see those cracks start to arise as they learn through Will's television screens and psychological tests what it really means to live a life, to be human, to sit in love and fear, and to experience the utter beauty that we all take for granted every day. This film made me cry at the simple beauty of a bicycle ride and what it feels like to run your hands through the sand. This is all about small moments that those not lucky enough to make it to day nine choose to have just once, and about the resolute and seemingly detached character of Will—how he reconciles denying a soul a chance at life. When Amanda dies, Will starts to question everything, and recruit Emma is like a sliver under his fingernail: irritating and unreachable, something he must grapple with. It's a character study in moments, but in the end, this film is about the nuances of being human, and how both beautiful and flawed all of the messiness of life can be.

Glen I've never seen any of writer-director Edson Oda's short films, but he's got nine listed from 2009 through 2017 on his Internet Movie Database page. He's best known as a successful commercial director in his home country of Brazil (he's of Japanese descent) with a thriving career in advertising. I'll say one thing: This is one hell of a feature-length debut. He won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at the Sundance Film Festival for it. Booth Beetz and Duke took home Excellence in Acting Awards from the Denver International Film Festival, and the Film Independent Spirit Awards nominated Wong for Best Supporting Male and Oda for the top prize of Independent Spirit. It truly is a singular vision, and performances by Duke and Beetz elevate the film. I also need to mention Tony Hale as Alexander, who first wheedles, then begs, then attacks Will in his effort to be chosen. Hale's terrific in the role. This is a small, fairly low-budget film ($10 million, I read, shot in just 25 days), and a potent reminder of what can be accomplished outside the studio system. It's a beautiful vision.

Anna Hale is wonderful here—perhaps the most "human" of all the candidates, and Skarsgård turns out a great performance as Kane, a cynical realist who if chosen would enter the world with a chip already on his shoulder. While most of the film happens within the walls of Will's house, the exterior shots are arresting. Nothing but a dusty plane with not a neighbor or tree in sight, with the house planted firmly in the middle of all that nothing. It's impressive that this is Oda's first full-length film. It really is a work of art, one that manages to keep several balls in the air and begs its audience to feel the dark, deep recesses of what it means to be and to live, and where true importance lies. This is a heavy one, and I can see some audience members feeling it's a bit out of reach, but instead of being pretentious, I argue it invites pondering. The end is particularly meaningful, and Duke turns in a beautiful performance. This is definitely worth the price of admission. Δ

Senior Staff Writer Glen Starkey and freelancer Anna Starkey write Split Screen. Glen compiles streaming listings. Comment at gstarkey@newtimesslo.com.

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