A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night: Sundance Review

Sundance Film Festival
A hushed and atmospheric film that features a vampire with a hijab on a skateboard. Yes, really.

Ana Lily Amirpour's debut feature -- a black-and-white vampire film -- stars a Farsi-speaking cast that includes Sheila Vand, Arash Marandi and Dominic Rains.

Jim Morisson reportedly once likened film spectators to “quiet vampires,” and if indeed they are, then the titular protagonist of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night must do a lot of movie watching in her spare time.

This accomplished debut feature in gorgeous black-and-white, from U.S.-based writer-director Ana Lily Amirpour, is set in Bad City -- which looks like a contemporary U.S. industrial town with some Western undercurrents and a dash of Frank Miller’s Sin City, though everyone speaks Farsi and an actual vampire roams the street at night. Beguiling in its strangeness, yet also effortlessly evoking recognizable emotions such as loneliness and the feeling of being stuck in a dead-end town and life, this moody and gorgeous film is finally more about atmosphere and emotions than narrative -- and none the worse for it.

PHOTOS: The Scene at Sundance Film Festival 2014

That said, the film’s unique mix of elements will make it a tough sell commercially, though festival audiences around the world (though perhaps not in Iran, given the brief nudity and frank portrayal of prostitution and drug use) should willingly line up for a spellbinding bite or two in the neck.

The eponymous girl is, quite appropriately, seen how she happens to be a blood-sucking undead girl, something of a spectral presence; the true protagonist in the traditional sense is Arash (Arash Marandi), seen in the opening shot in a white T-shirt and jeans, casually leaning against a rough-plank fence a la James Dean. Arash’s ride, a spick-and-span 1950s car, further confirms the archetype, though when he later passes a ditch full of corpses, it’s clear this isn’t happening in some idealized version of either the U.S. or Iran but somewhere out of the dark imagination of Amirpour.

At home, Arash, who has worked exactly 2,191 days to pay for his car, has to look after his father, Hossein (Marshall Manesh), a junkie and gambling addict who owes a lot of money to Saeed (Dominic Rains), a heavily tattooed dealer. Saeed decides to walk away with Arash’s car keys when Hossein can’t pay him and the narrative fallout of this pivotal event will connect all the main characters, which also include the titular girl (Sheila Vand), a vampire in a hijab and, occasionally, on a skateboard; a solitary prostitute (Mozhan Marno) that Saeed pimps out; and a street urchin (Milad Eghbali) that the nameless vampire scares the bejesus (bemohammed?) out of.

The girl and Arash first brush past each other on Saeed’s doorstep and this already suggests ideas of chance and possibility that later come to fruition, when the two meet again as the girl is walking home alone and Arash, who’s lost, bumps into her. This moment also gets the biggest laugh, as audiences will be aware by this point that she’s a vampire and Arash, who’s just been to a costume party, is dressed as Dracula.

Germany-based Marandi is perfectly cast as a sort of Persian matinee idol and he’s the straight-shooting entry point into this unusual place and story. Interestingly, for a film written and directed by a female filmmaker, the women are more enigmatic, although the film’s plentiful Western references might suggest this is simply genre convention as well as a reflection of the straightjacket Iranian society can represent for women.

Though there’s some mordant wit, Girl is really a film of hushed tones and quiet rhythms, especially as it develops into an unlikely, delicately handled love story of sorts. The director and editor Alex O’Flinn take their time -- occasionally too much time -- to observe the characters, and the introspective mood is enhanced by the monochrome visuals and exquisite use of the widescreen canvas of cinematographer Lyle Vincent (he also shot Sundance title Cooties with Elijah Wood, who’s an executive producer here).

Equally important is the soundtrack, with music ranging from the Middle Eastern fusion beats of Bei Ru to the underground Iranian rock of Radio Tehran and Kiosk to the spaghetti western-inspired tunes of Portland-based Federale.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (NEXT)

Production companies: Say Ahh Productions, SpectreVision, Logan Pictures, Black Light District

Cast: Sheila Vand, Arash Marandi, Dominic Rains, Marshall Manesh, Mozhan Marno, Milad Eghbali

Writer-Director: Ana Lily Amirpour

Producers: Sina Sayyah, Justin Begnaud, Ana Lily Amirpour

Executive producers: Elijah Wood, Daniel Noah, Josh C. Waller, Nick Moceri, Ben Conrad, Alexei Tylevich, Reza Sixo Safai, Daniel Grove, Patrick Grove

Director of photography: Lyle Vincent

Production designer: Sergio De La Vega

Costume designer: Nathalie O’Brien

Editor: Alex O’Flinn

Sales: Cinetic

No rating, 106 minutes.