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Gillian Flynn, the author and screenwriter of Gone Girl, is a huge influence on Jessica Knoll, who just adapted her bestselling novel Luckiest Girl Alive into a film—one that also features a strong woman lead who looks like a model of success outside, and harbors bitter resentments inside. While Flynn’s story deliciously explores the ongoing battle of the sexes, Knoll opts to explore the trauma of rape and a school shooting, topics which are decidedly less fun to discuss at parties or read at the beach. Disturbing flashbacks suggest director Mike Barker would rather make the material lurid than handle it sensitively, creating a queasy feeling throughout the film that the self-satisfied final minutes do little to address.
Mila Kunis plays Ani, a magazine writer in the midst of planning her wedding to Luke (Finn Wittrock). Knoll’s script supplies Ani with constant voiceover—she tells us about her habitual lying and her misanthropic streak. Some of these lies are relatively benign, like when she scarfs down extra pizza while Luke is in the bathroom, but others lead to a gnawing sense of torment.
The sudden appearance of a former high school classmate, one who is running for office on his gun control record, forces Ani to relitigate her past. We see several flashbacks where Chiara Aurelia plays teenage Ani, recently enrolled at an elite private high school, and just wants to fit in. Barker jumps around with chronology, devoting ample time to Ani’s rape and her surviving a school shooting (in portraying a survivor of both events, Aurelia’s performance is thankless and borderline cruel). When adult Ani is contacted by a documentary filmmaker, who wants to look into the shooting for his film, it only exacerbates matters because he wants to interview her and her classmate/rapist, forcing her to explain how they are connected.
At first, it seems like Luckiest Girl Alive will play into genre tropes. Barker cuts between Ani’s reality and brief fantasy sequences, which usually involve a dormant sense of bloodlust. There is a scene where Luke says a remark that disgusts her, so Ani imagines shoving a knife into his hand. This is meant to develop our curiosity, since we trust the knotty screenplay will unearth every important twist. Instead there is no satisfaction with each added twist because of Knoll’s traumatic subject matter. In fact, there is a sense of resignation to the film because we know we must eventually watch deeply disturbing events. Barker deepens our unease by shooting from the perpetrator’s perspective: We see a boy thrash over Ani’s body, just like we see a boy with a rifle aim and shoot at his classmates. Perhaps this is not so disturbing on the page, where our imagination can smooth over the details, but the literal nature of film means Barker’s flashbacks are significantly more taxing than the source material.
Setting aside the grisly flashbacks, the film includes a significant number of subplots that involve dependable character actors. Scoot McNairy appears in both timelines as Mr. Larson, Ani’s former teacher who is now her husband’s work acquaintance. Connie Britton plays Ani’s mother, a woman who struggles to bridge the gap between her working-class upbringing and the affluence of Luke’s family. These figures loom large for Ani, while her boss (Jennifer Beals) might bring her along to a new job at the New York Times Magazine. Many of these characters are a way for Knoll to explore whether someone like Ani can “have it all,” while others are red herrings. In other words, Luckiest Girl Alive goes in several directions at once: By mixing a twist-filled mystery with an observational drama about the challenges of modern womanhood and a two-tiered trauma plot, it has the unintentional consequence of diminishing its entire significance.
All the actors, especially Kunis, do their best to elevate the screenplay’s identity crisis. Barker frequently fails them, in part because his choices rarely reflect the characters’ interiority. When Ani and Luke finally have it out, and he shows her what kind of man he really is, Barker films it without the gravitas it deserves. In a thorny story that requires decisive choices, Barker only obliges in ways that are either unseemly, or borderline offensive. Knoll’s script does not help her case because the mouthy dialogue clearly is meant to be read, not spoken, and the reliance on voiceover counterintuitively makes us care less about Ani’s story. It is difficult to become invested in someone’s plight when we are told what to think about it, rather than figuring it out ourselves. At least Amy, the Gone Girl antagonist, was a self-deluding psychopath who was fun to dissect. There is no subtext here, only surface and trauma.
In the film’s final minutes, its superficial exploration of the material curdles into something worse. Having conquered her demons and asserted her freedom, Luckiest Girl Alive ends with a protracted denouement that celebrates Ani’s achievements. After a significant professional milestone, the film depicts her as the savior for women everywhere. As if that’s not enough, there are multiple scenes where the numerous women she crosses paths with thank Ani for her bravery. Even in a film based on a true story, this would be laying it on a little thick. The final scene, one where Ani says aloud what she normally keeps to herself, is meant to be triumphant but lands with a dull thud. How ironic that a film without much insight or sensitivity ends with the screenwriter taking a victory lap she never really earns.
Luckiest Girl Alive starts streaming on Netflix on Oct. 7.