The irony of “Luckyest Girl Alive” isn’t just in the title: isn’t it ironic that those who bully others are the ones who never seem to feel pain? In the vein of viral ’90s series “Yellowjackets” and “Cruel Summer,” “Luckiest Girl Alive” relies on flashbacks to frame the tentacles of trauma more than two decades later.
Mila Kunis plays women’s magazine editor Ani FaNelli, who seems to have the perfect Manhattan life in the perfect apartment with the perfect fiancé (Finn Wittrock). That is, until a true crime documentarian approaches Ani to find out what really happened at his prestigious high school all those years ago that led to the deadliest private school shooting in American history. “Luckiest Girl Alive” is based on Jessica Knoll’s bestselling 2015 novel of the same name, and Knoll adapted the screenplay herself, with “Handmaid’s Tale” director Mike Barker helming the film.
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Let’s be clear: “Luckiest Girl Alive” is a film about gang rape, school shootings, wealth disparity and repressed trauma. Like Ani, Knoll was gang-raped as a teenager and wrote a personal essay for Lena Dunham’s Lenny Letter saying that writing “Luckiest Girl Alive” helped her deal with her trauma. “’Luckiest Girl Alive’ is a work of fiction. What I kept to myself, until today, is that his inspiration is not,” Knoll wrote in 2016. “I ran and I dodged and I dodged because that I’m afraid. I’m afraid people won’t call what happened to me a rape because for a long time no one did.
This fear is what keeps young Ani, played by “Cruel Summer” scene-stealer Chiara Aurelia, wondering whether or not she should go to the police, or even tell her judgmental mother (Connie Britton). after being drugged, repeatedly raped, and held hostage by her attackers. “Luckiest Girl Alive” is strongest in its flashback sequences, with Aurelia and Kunis’ respective performances almost feeling like they belong in two different movies.
But maybe that’s the point: after surviving something so brutal – and director Barker and Aurelia certainly aren’t shy about showing how brutal it is – maybe Ani is violently split in two, and these performances should not be the same person. Sadly, that’s not the only thing about “Luckiest Girl Alive” that doesn’t quite fit.
There’s dark humor in Kunis’ Knoll insert, whose voiceover acts as a way to capture Ani’s identity. The ironic and sarcastic framing of Ani’s carefully curated adult personality doesn’t always land. It’s not entirely because of Kunis really giving it her all (alas, this movie still belongs entirely to Aurelia) but because of the script itself. It would be a disservice to judge the film simply on its message, not its overall merit.
As Ani (Kunis) sneaks into a department store to put together her wedding registry, she strokes a butcher’s knife, contemplating the weight of the blade and its implications. We don’t yet know why Ani feels compelled to graze the edge of the knife, or why she seems both empowered and frightened by it. As the department store clerk encourages Ani to try a lighter set of knives because she’s “little”, Ani’s voiceover says, “Little, that’s what they call little fat girls. I should know: I was one.
And so we begin the film, this “revelation” being the one that ushers in the opening credits and the title card. The control of image, bodies, appearance and perception is the backbone of the film, but to tell us that by cutting to Aurelia, the film begins on an awkward and uncomfortable note.
Ani then, again, recount tells us about her perfect fiancé, with Wittrock’s role confined to some sort of robot whose only thoughts are put into words by Ani. A potential Ivy Leaguer (he went to Colgate, you know, that other upstate preppy college that starts with a C), Ani’s fiancé (yes, his character is barely worth a name and just in reference to Ani) could just as easily be a supplement for “Get Out”. It’s almost a travesty, seeing Ani’s future in-laws spouting fake news about how guns are necessities, and no doubt siding with Brett Kavanaugh if he’s placed in the real world.
Don’t these people know that their future daughter-in-law survived a high-profile school shooting? Or that she was raped, something we find out Wittrock knows much later, which makes her actions (not understanding her desire for rough sex, calling her “crazy” for being anxious) even more incomprehensible. ?
Ani spends her days in a Cosmopolitan-like magazine, again recalling Knoll’s true career path. Titled Women’s Bible in the film, the glossy magazine sits under Ani, and we’re constantly told so. Ani belongs at the New York Times. She’s just brilliant, and her boss (the iconic Jennifer Beals) is going to get her there. “Men’s pleasure is of global importance,” Ani scoffs as talk of sex swirls around the editorial staff. There’s that irony again, a rape survivor covering sex and love for a women’s magazine. But it’s also her chosen job, and she excels at it.
Even as an adult, Ani is bombarded with comments on Facebook from the families of the shooting victims telling her she’s a “psychopathic bitch”, and we soon learn that Ani’s real name is TiffAni, the duality of his exploded personality allowing us to learn what really happened before the shooting. Was TiffAni involved? Was she an accomplice in the deaths of her rapists, one of whom survived and framed her before she could tell the truth about him? This survivor is an abuser, and the lines between victim and abuser are barely blurred enough to capture the attention of the “luckiest” audience.
“Nothing is so bad that you can’t do it for 10 more seconds,” Ani’s workout class instructor later said. Well, some things really are so bad, and Ani disassociating herself from the pain her body experiences in daily life is much needed. It’s the little snippets, like Ani being afraid of subways, that color “Luckiest” differently and hint at what could have been. The subtlety evoked teases “Luckiest Girl Alive” as a “Don’t Worry Darling” saga – a perfect life that falls surreal at the edges, giving way to a more sinister past truth.
It’s an unexpected confrontation between Ani and her former teacher (Scoot McNairy) that proves to be Kunis’ strongest scene with adult Ani, but not enough of the past is filled in for “Luckiest” to be a full movie. Other standout moments are due to the dedicated performances of chameleon Britton, Aurelia and Thomas Barbusca of “Big Time Adolescence” fame, who plays Ani’s high school pal. Barbusca brings a lopsided Duckie feel from “Sixteen Candles” to teenage Ani’s protector, his painted black fingernails and wild hair making him a charismatic alternative to Ani’s popular group of friends who later bullied her. .
Barbusca and Aurelia’s on-screen chemistry sells the film’s emotional components and builds on the shocking truth of the campus tragedy. Ani is caught in the crosshairs, in every way, no matter how wealthy she tries to marry as an adult.
Every “almost” moment — Kunis and Beals almost part of a landmark discussion of how rape is dealt with across generations of women, McNairy and Aurelia almost discussing his attack, and Wittrock almost having a full scene with Kunis without his character saying anything silly (“You were fun!” he shouts after Ani finally publishes the truth about his gang rape) – gives us a taste of what that “the luckiest” might have been. If only we were so lucky.
“Luckiest Girl Alive” begins streaming on Netflix on Friday, October 7.
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