Ani FaNelli (Mila Kunis) lives an opulent, regimented and, some people might consider, enviable life. The protagonist of Netflix’s Luckiest Girl Alive writes for a glossy women’s magazine, is engaged to a poster boy for summers in Nantucket and wears designer clothes tailored to her svelte form. She has discerning taste, a sharp personality and a caustic tongue.
When we meet Ani, shopping at Williams-Sonoma with her fiancé, Luke Harrison IV (Finn Wittrock), the contours of her meticulously curated existence are evident. But so is the anxious energy percolating beneath it. The wide-eyed brunette wrestles with memories of a traumatic high-school experience, marked by gun violence and sexual assault.
Luckiest Girl Alive
The Bottom Line
More plodding than harrowing.
Adapted from Jessica Knoll’s best-selling novel of the same name, Luckiest Girl Alive struggles to balance its dual aspirations: delivering an emotionally wrought tale about survival and wrapping its gravity in the cheeky breeziness of publishing comedies like Freeform’s The Bold Type. These commitments don’t have to be oppositional, but Luckiest Girl Alive doesn’t adequately justify their union. The result is a distant, atonal film that feels more slippery than evocative. Part of the blame rests on the inherent challenges of translating first-person narratives to the screen. Even if other films, like Gone Girl (to which Luckiest Girl Alive has been compared), have managed more effectively, it’s difficult to capture that level of interiority and intimacy in visual terms.
The film, directed by Mike Barker (The Handmaid’s Tale) with a screenplay by Knoll, seems to trudge through Ani’s unraveling, which is triggered by an inquiring documentary filmmaker (Dalmar Abuzeid) determined to uncover the real backstory behind the shooting at her prestigious private high school. He wants to give Ani a chance to clear her name, to counter the pervading narrative that has recast her as an accomplice instead of a victim. Beset by his insistence on an interview, Ani finds herself in a tough position: protect the life she struggled to build or speak the truth about her experience.
Considering how often society betrays survivors, Ani’s reluctance to subject herself to public scrutiny is understandable; Luckiest Girl Alive’s narrative aligns with the bleak state of affairs. The film takes place two years before the advent of #MeToo, and its release this Friday roughly marks five years since the movement’s apex. It’s hard not to think about the recent high-profile cases of women speaking up about harassment, assault and abuse at the hands of powerful men when it’s revealed that Ani’s demon comes in the form of Dean Barton (Alex Barone), a congressional hopeful who initially suggested Ani’s involvement in the shooting. In the years since the tragedy, Dean, now a paraplegic because of sustained injuries, has become a fierce advocate for gun control and a sympathetic public figure.
Luckiest Girl Alive spends a considerable amount of time on Ani’s indecision, which goes beyond whether to participate in the documentary. Luke, who works in finance, was recently promoted to lead his company’s European office, which means Ani might have to move to London after the wedding. Meanwhile, Ani’s boss (Jennifer Beals) wants her protégée to — because of some vague contractual agreement — move with her to The New York Times Magazine as a senior editor. The many choices — to do the doc or not, to curtail her career or not — weigh down the narrative, which soon starts to feel like it simply has too much going on.
The film chaotically shifts between Ani’s mounting present-day pressures and her traumatic past. These flashbacks are activated by ordinary routines: Testing knives with her fiancé brings forth memories of wielding the culinary tool for protection; watching the rhythmic pounding of soles on a treadmill reminds her of the approaching footsteps of her school shooter. Initially, Ani’s recollections are brief flashes, but as Luckiest Girl Alive gets closer to its finale, it spends more time in the past. Through these sequences, the challenges a young Ani (Chiara Aurelia) faced as a working-class student at a tony prep school become clearer. Aurelia delivers an impressive and confident turn in a film of otherwise merely adequate performances. She plays a more tender version of Ani, but invests her with an understated severity that telegraphs and contextualizes the future Ani’s impenetrability.
Luckiest Girl Alive takes its time to draw a conclusion most viewers will have guessed by the halfway point. The nearly two-hour runtime invites a sleepiness that the film struggles to shake. Whether it’s from a lack in the material or direction, Kunis’ portrayal feels fractured and incomplete long after the pieces of the character should have started clicking into place. By the time Ani decides what to do about the documentary (and her life), it’s hard not to feel like we should know her at least a little bit better.
Production companies: Picturestart, Made Up Stories, Orchard Farm Productions
Cast: Mila Kunis, Finn Wittrock, Chiara Aurelia, Scoot McNairy, Thomas Barbusca, Justine Lupe, Jennifer Beals, Connie Britton
Director: Mark Barker
Screenwriter: Jessica Knoll
Producers: Bruna Papandrea, p.g.a.; Jeanne Snow, p.g.a.; Erik Feig, p.g.a.; Lucy Kitada; Mila Kunis, p.g.a.
Executive producers: Jessica Knoll, Mike Barker; Buddy Enright, Lisa Sterbakov, Shane Fiske Goldner, Julia Hammer
Director of photography: Colin Watkinson, ASC, BSC
Production designer: Elisa Sauvé
Costume designer: Alix Friedberg
Editor: Nancy Richardson, ACE
Music: Linda Perry
Casting directors: David Rubin, Richard Hicks
1 hour 53 minutes