Sundance 2020 Review: Edson Oda’s “Nine Days” Offers a Rare and Special Time to Reflect

“We’re making a moment,” Kyo (Benedict Wong) tells Emma (Zazie Beetz), as he’s building a wooden frame to hang a screen on in “Nine Days,” a physical effort to facilitate a psychological response not unlike the one Edson Oda undertakes in his provocative and ultimately deeply edifying feature debut. Emma has found her way into one of the back rooms in the house of Will (Winston Duke), an administrator of sorts – “a cog in the wheel,” he says when one of hIs guests essentially asks if he’s a god – who operates a way station for a collection of souls looking to be attached to a corporeal body in the physical world. The supernatural conceit is largely limited to verbal description in Oda’s drama, which imagines the privilege of life as as a job that requires an interview, and over the course of nine days, Will narrows down potential prospects to one he’ll send to terra firma, a place he’s been himself and was enormously disappointed by.

The wooden frame is being prepared for the first to be dismissed in “Nine Days,” made to simulate a scene from someone else’s life that they were most taken by on the many screens Will has set up in the house to keep tabs on all those he’s sent onto the next level, and while this marks the end of the road for someone who won’t get the chance to really live, it is the starting block for Oda’s architectural marvel in terms of opening up the mind as the writer/director has made something strong enough to let the film’s considerable artifice to fall away to begin to ponder questions about the meaning of life and how much human behavior can ever be accounted for and predicted by someone living outside of another’s experience. Although Duke’s Will is the sturdy center of “Nine Days,” the wonderfully curious Beetz proves to be an ideal avatar for an audience in a film that continually raises so many big ideas playing Emma, the most difficult of the candidates for Will to get a sense of before making his choice. She’s joined in the house by Maria (Arianna Ortiz), Mike (David Rhysdahl), Alex (Tony Hale) and Cain (Bill Skarsgard), all unsure of how to respond to Will, who never articulates what he’s looking for, though a sense of toughness seems to be a necessity, especially as it’s gradually revealed that he may have been assigned his own job by not having enough of it.

Besides the philosophical questions raised by the premise, “Nine Days” also begs for a few about Will’s literal place in the grander scheme of things, but Oda constructs an alternate universe cohesive and awesome enough to keep those at bay until well after the film has ended, if at all, and never shrinks from the boldness from the ideas he’s putting forth. The airy cinematography of Wyatt Garfield and Antonio Pinto’s heavenly score open the film up to the heights that few ever even attempt to reach, and while Oda explores the increasingly weighty decisions Will makes as he becomes aware of choices he’s made that haven’t worked out as he expected, the film manages the exact right lightness of touch to take hold. “Nine Days” may tell a story of those awaiting their time to live, but as an experience, it is alive with possibility and wonderment.

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