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Souls Audition For Their Bodies In Sundance Hit 'Nine Days'

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Souls waiting to be selected for life on Earth sounds like a movie plot - right? - like a specific movie, in fact - Pixar's "Soul." Well, it's also the premise of "Nine Days," a live-action drama that was a hit at the Sundance Film Festival. Critic Bob Mondello says "Nine Days" took him a lot more than nine days to process.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Will is a gatekeeper of sorts and a monitor. His house has a wall of vintage television sets on which the lives of people play out from their point of view. Amanda, for instance, is practicing a concerto, unaware that Will is seeing on a screen exactly what she sees - her hands on violin and bow, the conductor and orchestra - all through her eyes. Will writes in a notebook that she's practicing and that it's 10,327 days since her selection. Will was her selector. It's his job. As played by Winston Duke, he's an otherworldly bureaucrat who auditions souls for bodies as needed.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "NINE DAYS")

WINSTON DUKE: (As Will) May I call you Anne?

PERRY SMITH: (As Anne) Sure.

MONDELLO: Anne is four hours old.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "NINE DAYS")

DUKE: (As Will) Do you know why you're here?

SMITH: (As Anne) Strangely, yes.

DUKE: (As Will) Do you mind if I say it out loud just to make it official?

SMITH: (As Anne) OK.

DUKE: (As Will) You are being considered for the amazing opportunity of life. If after this process you are selected, you will have the chance to be born in a fruitful environment where you can grow, develop and accomplish. Would you like to be considered for this position?

MONDELLO: Anne is one of six candidates, and Will treats five of them identically.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "NINE DAYS")

DUKE: (As Will) May I call you Mike?

DAVID RYSDAHL: (As Mike) Yes.

DUKE: (As Will) Maria, Alexander, Kane.

BILL SKARSGARD: (As Kane) Yeah.

MONDELLO: With the sixth, played by Zazie Beetz, he gets a surprise. She wants to choose her own name, and she questions his questions as he administers what amounts to an existential aptitude test.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "NINE DAYS")

DUKE: (As Will) No right or wrong answer. Just say whatever comes to mind.

ZAZIE BEETZ: (As Emma) I'm really not sure if I can answer your question if you don't answer mine.

MONDELLO: All of this is taking place in an intriguing limbo, sort of a prenatal purgatory with craftsman-style bungalows concocted by first-time filmmaker Edson Oda. He is Brazilian-born, Los Angeles-based and clearly a fan of all things meta, metaphysical and metaphorical especially. He's come up with a nifty concept.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "NINE DAYS")

DUKE: (As Will) Do you have any questions?

RYSDAHL: (As Mike) Am I dead?

DUKE: (As Will) I wouldn't say you're alive or dead.

TONY HALE: (As Alexander) Are you the boss?

DUKE: (As Will) I would say a cog in the wheel.

HALE: (As Alexander) That sounds intense.

BEETZ: (As Emma) So I have nine days...

DUKE: (As Will) Yes.

BEETZ: (As Emma) ...Or less. After that?

DUKE: (As Will) If you're selected, there is an extension as a newborn. If not, I would say it's the end.

MONDELLO: If the candidates have trouble puzzling out what it means to be human, Will discovers there are pitfalls in trying to judge what it means to be human.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "NINE DAYS")

DUKE: (As Will) Maybe she's most likely to fall on the battlefield.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) You always talk as if you're sending them to war.

DUKE: (As Will) And you always talk as if you've been alive to know anything.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Excuse me.

DUKE: (As Will) You're excused.

MONDELLO: The film isn't just a head trip. It has fun with practical effects, building sets, the whole magic of theatre and filmmaking. And, man, the fun of pulling it apart - there are bits of Plato and Sartre and Walt Whitman in its philosophizing, quite a lot of "Being John Malkovich" in its execution, which may be why that film's director signed on as producer. And if you've ever been wowed by the bureaucrats-sorting-through-memories drama "Afterlife," you'll be thinking of "Nine Days" as a kind of pre-life companion piece. Happily, you don't have to get all those references to get "Nine Days." It's plenty rewarding just as a reminder to celebrate every moment you're given. I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANTONIO PINTO'S "10327 DAYS OF LIFE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: July 30, 2021 at 10:00 PM MDT
An earlier version of this story indicated that 'Nine Days' was part of this year's Sundance Film Festival. It was at last year's festival.
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