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I Think We’re Alone Now is a quiet, contemplative look at life after the apocalypse

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Director Reed Morano takes Peter Dinklage and Elle Fanning on a beautiful and moody ride

Photo: Sundance Institute

Welcome to Cheat Sheet, our brief breakdown-style reviews of festival films, VR previews, and other special event releases. This review comes from the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.

Over the past decade, the world post-apocalypse has become a familiar setting, with numerous movies and TV shows exploring what happens to people when the order and structure of society falls down around them. For her newest film, I Think We’re Alone Now, director Reed Morano (The Handmaid’s Tale) jumps into that setting with both feet, telling the story of a man (Game of Thrones’ Peter Dinklage) who’s enjoyed his contented, solitary last-man-on-Earth life — until it’s upended by the appearance of a young woman (Elle Fanning).

But Morano and screenwriter Mike Makowsky aren’t interested in twisty plot revelations, or uncovering the mystery of what caused the world to fall to pieces. Much like Trey Edward Shults’ It Comes At Night, I Think We’re Alone Now is a tone poem of a movie, telling its story with lush, vivid imagery, and quiet, nuanced performances. Its slow, methodical pacing may not appeal to all moviegoers, and the film’s final act doesn’t entirely work. But it’s nevertheless a beautiful meditation on loneliness and the walls we put up to deal with grief and loss.

What’s the genre?

Post-apocalyptic indie drama, which is not really a formal genre, but should probably become one at some point. I bet Netflix has it as a category, at the very least.

What’s it about?

When the film opens, everybody in the world is apparently dead, except Del (Dinklage). A former librarian who worked nights and didn’t have many personal connections, Del deals with the apocalypse by methodically bringing order to the small town around him. He cleans out every house, removing and burying the owners’ dried-up corpses, dead of no clear cause. He scrubs surfaces, scavenges for batteries, and carefully marks off each house on a map after he goes through it. But he doesn’t seem upset or particularly angst-ridden. If anything, Del lives a serene, contented life, where he fishes for his dinner on a nearby lake, and enjoys each evening meal with a glass of wine while watching the sun go down.

That orderly calm is torn asunder when Grace (Fanning) arrives. She’s the polar opposite of Del: vibrant, talkative, and eager to connect, where he wants only to be left alone. Over time, they slowly begin to respect each other. His icy detachment begins to thaw, and she begins to understand why he is dealing with the loss of all human life in the way he is. However, as they become closer, something happens that makes Del think they may not be the two last people left on the planet after all.

What’s it really about?

Loss and grief, and the stubborn mechanisms we use to cope with trauma. Del was a loner before the apocalypse struck, and initially, he claims he’s happy to be living a near-monastic life of solitude and silence. But as the movie progresses, it emerges that he has lost people, too, and his dogmatic insistence on structure is covering up for a deeper, more painful sense of loss. Grace has her own version of this dynamic; she’s essentially rewritten who she was in her own mind, an effort to cover up past trauma and horror. In the end, neither can get away with following these approaches — they both have to face their respective truths if they want to survive.

Is it good?

It’s a quiet, contemplative film, which will no doubt frustrate viewers who are used to more dynamic and plot-driven takes on these particular themes. The experience of watching I Think We’re Alone Now is very much the experience of living life the way Del does, taking in and appreciating each moment, sometimes without any reassuring sense of pending pay-off or purpose.

The approach is risky, but it works as well as it does because of the work of its two leads. Dinklage is such a consistently remarkable actor, and Del gives him the opportunity to play a much more introverted, reserved character than he gets to portray in Game of Thrones. (Though Tyrion Lannister and Del do share a penchant for wine.) Fanning’s Grace, on the other hand, is full of light, life, and hope in a way that contrasts sharply with both Del and the dead that surround them. But Fanning also threads a sense of melancholy and longing beneath Grace’s glowing exterior.

Also key is Morano’s dual-duty work as both director and cinematographer. The filmmaker began her career as a director of photography, and she renders the film full of lush, golden-hour imagery and dramatic silhouettes. It’s a cliche to say that the photography in a film can become a character in its own right, but that is truly the case here, with Morano using her visual prowess to add an additional emotional layer that ties the film together.

I Think We’re Alone Now feels so cohesive for the majority of its running time that some of its third-act plot developments can’t help but be jarring. The unexpected directions it takes aren’t really justified or earned. That said, it does hold together thematically, making for an awkward but workable landing.

What should it be rated?

There are some adult themes in play, and a lot of dead bodies, but nothing that should earn the movie anything more than a PG-13.

How can I actually watch it?

There’s no distribution deal in place, but it’s a movie with the Game of Thrones guy, made by the Emmy-winning director of The Handmaid’s Tale. It’ll end up in theaters or on streaming services soon enough.