Nine Days (2021; Edson Oda)
By Daniel Barnes
*Opening today at the Tower Theatre in Sacramento.
“This has nothing to do with being good or bad.”
Accomplished short film and commercial director Oda makes his feature-length debut with this uneven existential fantasy. Winston Duke (Us) gives a strong performance as Will, a quietly wounded former human working in a before-life limbo. From a solitary beach house, Will chooses which souls go to Earth from a group of candidates, then obsessively observes and catalogs their lives on analog-era TVs and VCRs. Even though he gets all the beer he wants, it’s clear from the start that Will is guarding his demons and enacting some sort of self-imposed penance.
The first crack in the emotional reservoir comes with the unexpected death of Amanda, a violin prodigy selected by Will. Now tasked with choosing a replacement soul, Will vets a diverse group of candidates while also investigating what went wrong with Amanda. The candidates include tough guy Kane (Bill Skarsgard), sensitive guy Mike (David Rysdahl) and regular guy Alexander (Tony Hale). More difficult to categorize is the late-arriving Emma (Zazie Beetz), who provokes Will to reveal his tortured past.
Nine Days holds many similarities to Hirokazu Kore-eda’s 1998 movie After Life, in which dead souls get to recreate a treasured life memory before departing into the abyss. However, Nine Days is more typical of skin-deep, Sundance-celebrated movies in that it overemphasizes rules and explanations while churning out message-on-the-sleeve life lessons. Naturally, those lessons involve doing things like screaming into the ocean void and feeling the sand between your toes because that’s real living in movies like this. It’s occasionally engrossing but mostly shallow and slow, although Oda shows undeniable talent, so let’s call it a near-miss.