Adapted from Jessica Knoll’s same-named 2015 novel, Netflix’s psychological thriller Luckiest Girl Alive stands out from obvious comparisons Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train by virtue of its nuanced depiction of trauma, survival and recovery and an impressively subtle lead performance from Mila Kunis. It isn’t always easy viewing, with flashbacks to both a school shooting and multiple sexual assaults requiring trigger warnings. But with screenwriter Knoll able to further expand on her own devastating experiences, this unusually cinematic Netflix original achieves both an authenticity and powerful level of catharsis.
Mila Kunis delivers one of career-best performances
A thought-provoking exploration of toxic masculinity and aftermath of trauma
Drama is punctuated by welcome darkly comic streak
Looks more cinematic than most of Netflix’s original films
– Adds self-satisfied denouement
– Lingers too long on disturbing scenes
– Pivotal points from source material are erased
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- Adapted from Jessica Knoll's bestselling novel
- Directed by Mike Barker, a veteran TV director with a long stint on The Handmaid's Tale
- Knoll adapted her own novel for the screenplay
- Starring Mila Kunis, Finn Wittrock and Connie Britton
- Releasing on Netflix worldwide
- Running time of 113 minutes
“It’s 2015 and people still act like marriage is some sort of crowning achievement for women,” narrates Mila Kunis’ bride-to-be Ani Fanelli while shopping for fancy kitchen knives in the opening scene of Netflix's Luckiest Girl Alive, the latest original to roll off the streaming giant's production line. “That is a trap I did not fall into.” The fact she then envisages stabbing her future husband suggests we’re in for a marital murder tale akin to another New York Times Bestseller given the Hollywood treatment, Gone Girl.
While the writer of the original novel and its adapted screenplay Jessica Knoll has freely admitted to aping Gillian Flynn’s career path, her story is markedly different from the homicide-framing antics of Amy Dunne and her icy portrayal by Rosamund Pike. Ani doesn’t have any nefarious intentions towards her wealthy fiancé Luke (Finn Wittrock) – although his maddening lack of empathy would justify such thoughts. Her imaginary bloodshed stems from the deep trauma she suffered at the hands of her elite high school peers. And not just the relentless bullying over her less-privileged background either.
As revealed in flashbacks where Chiara Aurelia (Cruel Summer) stands in for Kunis, Ani was left emotionally scarred by the actions of three different male students on the same drunken night. Just weeks later, she was forced to run for her life when two outcasts opened fire in the deadliest private school shooting on American soil. Furthermore, thanks to malicious rumours spread by one of her attackers, she was accused of being an accomplice.
On the surface, Ani appears to have put her ordeal behind her. She’s changed her name from Tiffany, lives in a swanky New York apartment with her financial advisor boyfriend and makes a living writing articles with titles such as 69 Ways To Get Him Off for glossy magazine Women’s Bible.
But when a filmmaker invites her to participate in a documentary about the Bradley school tragedy, one which a classmate harboring the darkest of secrets is also contributing to, she once again has to confront all those repressed feelings head-on.
Mila is a marvel
Soon to reprise the That ‘70s Show role that launched her to fame in its ‘90s-based spin-off, Kunis proves once again she’s just as talented a dramatic actress as she is a comedic. She essentially has to pull double duty here, playing Ani as an outwardly confident go-getter capable of assimilating herself in Luke’s privileged world but also exposing her vulnerability, anxieties and general sense of disdain in a whole host of inner monologues.
As with another Netflix original, You, this voiceover technique is a little overused and it’s a blatant cheat by Knoll, who adapted her own novel for the screen, to transplant her words from the page to the screen. That said, it does allow Kunis to provide some much-needed light to the film’s prevalent shade. Watch out for how her two separate personalities collide during an in-laws get-together where she accidentally insults a couple of insensitive gun-lobbyists out loud.
Kunis’ multi-layered performance makes Ani a much more intriguing heroine (or anti-heroine?) than you may expect. No doubt emotionally damaged by her overbearing, under-nurturing mother Dina (Connie Britton recapturing the narcissism of her girlboss parent in The White Lotus), she’s not always a particularly likeable presence. In fact, you could argue Ani is just as manipulative as the one percenters she despises in the way she’s meticulously crafted ‘the perfect life.’ She even admits as much in the film’s climactic scene. However, it’s this moral ambiguity that keeps you guessing about her culpability until the terrifying big reveal.
A spectacular finish
Prepare to hold your breath for a good five minutes once the mundanity of the daily school routine is literally blown apart by a giant cafeteria explosion, with director Mike Barker providing views of all the carnage that follows from both the victims and the perpetrators’ perspectives. Netflix’s original films are often accused of possessing the same amount of visual flair as your average made-for-TV affair. Yet with its immersive, stylish cinematography, Luckiest Girl Alive – to paraphrase the eloquent Harry Styles – actually feels like a movie.
There are actually two terrifying big reveals, to be exact, with the other focusing on what happened during the party that robbed Ani of her innocence. Barker has experience of handling such subject matter sensitively with his stints on The Handmaid’s Tale. So, it’s surprising the disturbing scenes here border on the lurid, with the cameras appearing to linger on Ani’s torment just a little too longer than necessary.
Knoll based Luckiest Girl Alive on her own experiences as a sexual assault survivor, something she only revealed in an essay for Lena Dunham’s newsletter a year after her debut book had been published. Perhaps that explains why the film is so much more effective in tackling the aftermath. Ani is repeatedly, and heartbreakingly, victim-blamed and victim-shamed in the days and weeks after, whether through her mom worrying what their neighbors will think, her indie kid friend Arthur (Thomas Barbusca) castigating her for not fighting back or her boyfriend gaslighting her into questioning whether anything happened at all.
The equally troubling present-day responses (one shooting victim’s aunt sends Luke the Facebook message, “Don’t marry that psycho slut”) and revealing conversation with Jennifer Beals’ empowering editor bring home just how long-lasting the effects of such trauma can be, and how much those affected have to hide their pain.
Admittedly, fans of the source material may still be left disappointed by several notable changes, including the omission of Ani’s father and her tryst with a much kinder face from the past. Kunis also fought for an addendum which ends all the harrowing drama on a more celebratory note, albeit one that could also be construed as slightly self-satisfied.
Dropping just a week after Blonde’s fetishising of Marilyn Monroe’s turmoil, Luckiest Girl Alive should be applauded for at least giving its victim a sense of agency. It won’t receive anywhere near the same awards attention as Andrew Dominik’s problematic biopic, if any at all, yet ultimately it has much more interesting and legitimate things to say.
Luckiest Girl Alive is out now on Netflix.