Edson Oda’s debut feature Nine Days takes place in a pre-life world built out of outdated technology and run by character actors who struggle not to get too attached to the spirits they send to Earth. This is what you’d get if you asked Wim Wenders to collaborate with Michel Gondry on a remake of Pixar’s Soul.
The movie parcels out information about its world a bit at a time, but it never holds too much back for too long, whetting curiosity for the next chapter in the story with new details instead of artificial teases. It’s not long before we piece together the nature of this limbo where Will (Winston Duke) watches earthly lives play out through old tube televisions in his cottage. The cottage sits in the middle of a desert, though apparently within reasonable walking distance of other cottages with similar purposes as his supervisor and confidant Kyo (Benedict Wong, as refreshingly buoyant as Duke is staid) makes the journey between these points.
Will tries to maintain an even keel but a sudden death in his roster sends him for a loop. He has to fill the spot through an interview process with several candidates that includes recognizable supporting cast members like Zazie Beetz, Bill Skarsgård and Tony Hale, the last of which can’t help but stand out from the pack with the kind of underappreciated modulation he brings to everything, selling not just a laugh but finding the right laugh to go with the moment. Beetz risks the uncanny Manic Pixie Dream Spirit Who Wants to Be a Girl but her performance and the movie is too canny to get stuck in that trap.
Winston Duke is worlds apart from his role as the patriarch in Jordan Peele’s Us which was already a great distance from his growly leader in Black Panther. The range on display in just three films – hell, just in this movie – is astonishing and exciting. Will fights to blend into the background while his instincts keep drawing him beyond his duties.
Some viewers might find themselves pushed back by the dips into wide-eyed wonderment. The Gondryesque elements in particular – like a simulated bike ride contraption – quickly fill the whimsy tank to capacity. But the performances keep the movie from spoiling when it risks maudlin or cutesy territory. Oda may court sentimentality in method but never presents anything less than honest.
The metaphysics get prodded a bit, but the bigger questions – If Kyo is the boss of Will who is the boss of Kyo? What is the nature of the existence of the candidates before and after the process? – get left as background noise to the narrative. There isn’t a clockwork world like in Soul, but there’s no less ambition in the vision. The finale takes a big swing and Duke steps into the spotlight and carries the film to an unexpected height.
Nine Days is showing in select theaters.