‘Alice’ Review: SXSW Grand Jury Prize Winner Is Emotional Tale of Desperate Sex Worker

Josephine Mackerras’ microbudget debut is a showcase for actress Emilie Piponnier.

The opening minutes of “Alice” make the case for Emilie Piponnier to be a movie star, and the rest of the movie keeps it up. As the eponymous centerpiece of the 2019 SXSW Grand Jury Prize winner, Piponnier dominates every frame, with a mesmerizing screen presence that pushes the drama well beyond its formulaic premise and visible microbudget constraints. Nevertheless, French director Josephine Mackerras’ understated debut operates on the same intimate wavelength as Piponnier’s simmering desperation — and, eventually, her newfound sense of pride — as a woman who becomes a sex worker to support her child. That premise may not change the world, but “Alice” succeeds as a sturdy window into one woman’s quest to take control of her oppressive world. If a festival breakout narrative counts for anything, it should advance the careers of the women on both sides of the camera.

At first, Alice maintains a cozy domestic life with her husband Francois (Benjamin Bourgois) and their young son. But Francois, a struggling writer, shows hints of dissatisfaction over dinner party conversation, and those seeds come to fruition moments later, when he vanishes with all of the money she’s inherited from her mother. In an abrupt exchange with an unsympathetic loan officer, Alice learns the awful truth: Her husband has burned through their finances on a prostitution addiction, leaving her without the proper funds to pay her mortgage. The bank gives her two weeks to figure out a plan.

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