Nine Days | ★★★½ | Opens Friday, Aug. 6

As screenplay premises go, the one we’re presented with in Nine Days is pretty sweet: Never mind the afterlife, what about the beforelife? What if there were a kind of metaphysical vetting process for earning the right to live a life on Earth? What would be the criteria in a situation like that? Who would the applicants be? Who’s in charge of it all?

In this existential drama-slash-head-trip from first-time director Edson Oda, the answers are complicated. Winston Duke (Black Panther, Us) plays the lead character, a numbed-out bureaucratic entity by the name of Will. Good name, that, for a movie like this. Will is not currently a person, but he used to be. Now he’s a selector, tasked with interviewing five potential souls for a new vacancy on Earth.

Will lives in an odd limbo, a ranch house on an endless desert where potential souls wander about. The house is filled with 1980s-era analog equipment, including a bank of old television monitors through which Will monitors his current earthly charges. These are the humans whom Will has previously sent to Earth, and when one of them takes her own life, it sends Will into an existential crisis of his own.

Enter the applicants. Each stumbles in from the cosmic desert in a sort of daze, vaguely aware that they’ve been given a grand opportunity.

The preborn hopefuls register as types more than characters: The damaged victim, the cynical pragmatist, the good-time Charlie. Will interviews each of them, posing frightening hypothetical situations as they watch the EarthCam feed in the living room.

The most promising applicant, by far, is the free-spirited Emma (Zazie Beetz), who shows up late for her first appointment and refuses to answer the scary hypotheticals. Instead, she writes out long lists of the stuff she likes, from what she’s seen, about life on Earth.

The film essentially chronicles the next nine days as the candidates learn about life. Will is the final arbiter of their fate, but he makes it clear that he is not God. (“More like a cog in the wheel,” he says.) The film makes space for lots of philosophical conjecture, and director Oda assembles some lovely visual set pieces.

The relationship between Will and Emma is the heart of the movie. Beetz brings her usual effortless charisma, layered atop a gentle, childlike curiosity.

She’s inherently kind, destined to be one of those strange and admirable people we come across in life who naturally think of others before themselves. Emma’s relationship with Will is intriguing—a liberated pre-person schooling a damaged post-person on the secret to happy personhood.

Oh, it’s a trip, man. Nine Days is a bold piece of filmmaking, and Oda is clearly a new talent to watch, but the film never really clicks as it should.

The pacing is uneven, and too many sequences play like the most interesting student short you’ve ever seen. The final scene doesn’t quite land, despite—or perhaps because of—some famous Walt Whitman poetry.

Nevertheless, adventurous film lovers will want to put this one in the queue, just to watch how Oda successfully breaks the traditional rules of narrative feature filmmaking. There are technically no people in this story, which opens up all kinds of interesting avenues for the script and the performers.

I also liked the rather grim implications of that infinite desert. It suggests that, except for Earth, existence on the metaphysical plane is the same as it is in the observable cosmos—utterly empty and devoid of light or warmth.

It’s a good reminder: we’re lucky just to be here.

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