Debut Films “Aloners” and “Violet” Immerse Us in the Lives of Women on the Brink of Change

This is one in a series of reviews from the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), during which I focused on films directed by women; you can find my other TIFF 2021 reviews here.

As unrelated-yet-analogous narratives about women who each arrive at their own personal tipping point after struggling against internal forces and constraints, directorial feature debuts Aloners (South Korea, directed by Hong Sung-eun) and Violet (USA, directed by Justine Bateman) are a compelling study in contrasts and congruences.

Both films offer insightful looks at imperfect protagonists who navigate their lives in wildly different yet parallel ways. Both films are troubling and moving at turns, character studies that ask viewers to, as per Bateman’s description of Violet, “put the character … on like a coat,” and fully immerse yourself in her life. Both films nuance the role of sound and image as dialogue, ambient noise and cinematography illuminate and reflect aspects of these women’s experiences of outward success alongside inward unease.

They are also completely distinct films, offering singular narratives and taking divergent paths to their conclusions.

Aloners is an intensely quiet, atmospheric exploration of self-imposed isolation and loneliness requiring both focus and patience from the audience.

Violet, by contrast, is intrusively loud, allowing neither its protagonist nor its viewers a moment of peace from the insistence of its narrative interruptions.

Examined together, these films present two distinct views on modern life, professional achievement and personal struggle.  

Aloners is a stirring portrait of the cages we build for ourselves—and questions how and when we may want to be free of them.

Still from Aloners. (Courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival)

Hong Sung-eun’s Aloners follows a twentysomething woman, Jina (Gong Seung-Yeon) who has settled into a solitary and monotonous life: she lives alone in small apartment and commutes daily to her job in a credit card customer service department with her eyes glued to her phone, shutting out the world around her. As the top employee at the call center, Jina speaks to customers all day long and then speaks to almost no one as soon as she clocks out; she smokes and eats lunch alone, watching videos on her phone. Ignoring calls from her recently widowed father and barely interacting with a neighbor who tries to draw her into nightly conversation, Jina returns home each day to eat a microwave dinner and watch TV until she falls asleep—only to resume the cycle following morning.

Then, two things disrupt Jina’s safe and simple pattern of existence: She discovers that her neighbor died alone in his apartment several days before she last saw him, suggesting less of a ghost story and more that Jina is so divorced from her real life she failed to notice his absence.

Secondly, she’s forced to train a gregarious new intern, Sujin (Jeong Da-eun), who tries desperately to break through Jina’s impenetrable solitude and flounders under her refusal to be drawn out.

Aloners doesn’t offer pat answers to Jina’s isolation, even as her outlook shifts and adapts—and the film is the better for it. Instead, it conveys with intricate and thoughtful detail the comfort Jina finds in sameness and digital distraction, and the ease with which her world can become suddenly disrupted by changes she cannot control. Gong’s restrained acting conveys a remarkable inner depth behind Jina’s stoic façade, brought out all the more by Hong’s meticulous writing and directing. An introspective film, simultaneously gripping and melancholy but punctuated by moments of humor, Aloners is a stirring portrait of the cages we build for ourselves—and questions how and when we may want to be free of them.

Violet exhibits an admirable and ambitious attempt to deliver a character trying to break free from her anxiety and, in many ways, save her own life.

Still from Violet. (Courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival)

Violet also introduces its eponymous protagonist (Olivia Munn) as someone trapped in a prison of her own making—a woman who has long functioned as a kind of living causality of an internal battle. Constantly beset by a voice in her head (Justin Theroux) who berates her every action and choice, criticizes her eating and dress, and tells her she is worthless, Violet can barely walk down the street without loud, intrusive commentary invading her psyche.

But she also has a quiet, simmering inner voice of her own—visualized in the film by flowing white script superimposed on the image in many scenes—that begs for love and hope and acknowledgement.

An established, well-respected film executive, Violet doesn’t know how to stand up for herself against her boss’s harassment or the disrespect of her subordinates. The intrusive voice in her head makes insistent demands, threatening her with loss of love and professional respect if she doesn’t comply. While Violet sometimes attempts to resist, her anxiety and lack of self-awareness usually overwhelm her efforts at leading her own life.

What makes Bateman’s film particularly arresting is its experimental use of both voiceover and superimposed text to manifest Violet’s state of mind and the internal conflict that causes her to sabotage relationships and her own happiness.  At times, the obtrusive nature of the voiceover’s interjections are almost too intense, overwhelming the film’s narrative and making it difficult to connect with Violet as a character; however, the jarring nature of these interruptions is also part of the point.

Violet exhibits an admirable and ambitious attempt to deliver a character trying to break free from her anxiety and, in many ways, save her own life—as well as the possibilities of film to achieve this kind of fully immersive experience.

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Aviva Dove-Viebahn is an assistant professor of film and media studies at Arizona State University and a contributing editor for Ms.' Scholar Writing Program.