Synopsis: A sharp-tongued New Yorker who appears to have it all is invited to tell her side of the shocking incident that occurred when she was a teenager at a prestigious prep school.
Stars: Mila Kunis, Finn Wittrock, Chiara Aurelia, Scoot McNairy, Thomas Barbusca, Justine Lupe, Dalmar Abuzeid, Alex Barone, Carson MacCormac, Jennifer Beals, Connie Britton
Director: Mike Barker
Running Length: 113 minutes
TMMM Score: (7.5/10)
Review: All of us are running from our past; at least, that’s what the narrator of Jessica Knoll’s 2015 bestseller ‘Luckiest Girl Alive’ tells the reader at the beginning of her story. It turns out that Ani has good reason to want to leave her former life behind, but it takes a few hundred pages and a narrative you don’t always trust to get the full details out into the open. It makes for good reading, and it’s easy to see why the movie rights for the book were snapped up quickly. Like Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train, other page-to-screen adaptations her novel was compared to, Knoll’s work reads like a screenplay already. Maybe that’s why the author was the most obvious choice to bring her work of fiction, based in small parts on her personal experiences, to life.
Carrying far more clout and sophistication than your average pulpy thriller, Luckiest Girl Alive benefits from Knoll maintaining control of her work and making the creative edits that helped the piece transition to Netflix. It also has found a perfect star in Mila Kunis (Bad Moms), an actress that has long circled the edge of the A-List with consistency, nearly flirting with an Oscar nomination for 2010’s Black Swan but has yet to find the film that opens that elusive door. I’m not sure this is the film to unlock that access, but it again shows an actress with edge and, more importantly, a range that compels you to keep watching.
Life is good, finally, for thirtysomething Ani Fanelli. Her wedding to Luke (Finn Wittrock, Deep Water) is coming up quickly, her years of dedication writing scintillating columns for LoLo Vincent’s (Jennifer Beals, The Bride) publication are paying off with a planned promotion, and a fractured relationship with her mother (Connie Britton, Breaking) is as mended as it’s been in years. However, there’s a small fissure that needs to be addressed before it becomes bigger. A filmmaker has asked Ani to participate in a documentary about the school shooting she survived over a decade earlier.
Thinking about the tragedy brings up faces and situations she deliberately compartmentalizes for her well-being. At the time, questions arose if the young Ani (Chiara Aurelia, Fear Street Part Two: 1978) was somehow involved or knew about the shooter’s intentions in advance due to spoiler-territory circumstances I won’t reveal here. When a former classmate attempts to bait her into participating in the film by re-opening old wounds and suspicions, Ani must choose whether to confront a looming trauma of her past she’s moved on from and risk her future with Luke. To not speak up would mean she’d continue to repress what happened and stand falsely accused of a horrific crime. Or maybe there’s another reason why Ani doesn’t want others to dig too far into her past, where old skeletons tend not to want to stay buried forever.
To the credit of Kunis, Knoll, and director Mike Barker, the soapiness inherent in much of Luckiest Girl Alive doesn’t play as such in the finished product. Instead, it moves like a locomotive and keeps the viewer on their toes, so you aren’t ever entirely sure whom to trust. Maybe it’s because we’ve been conditioned to never take for full face value what a steely-voiced narrator is telling us, especially when there’s a scene where a teacher blatantly takes about the concept of the “unreliable narrator” and its effect on narrative writing. Kunis takes to the role nicely, enjoying playing the hard and soft side of the adult Ani while Aurelia navigates through challenging scenes of trauma that were hard to watch.
For most of the film, I kept wishing there was more of a spark between Kunis and Wittrock until I realized that may have been the point all along. Ani tells us early on that her goal was to trick him into the fact that she was a certain kind of girl. You believe she has feelings for him, but she’s also forgotten who she is along the way, so the emotions aren’t honest enough ever to be true. Perhaps that’s just a way of swatting away the lack of chemistry between the actors, but it winds up working well. Aside from a ghastly wig (why I ask you??), Britton is fantastic fun as Ani’s boozy mother who puts social status before maternal care. In minor roles, I enjoyed Scoot McNairy (Blonde) as a teacher young Ani warms to, and Beals is especially noteworthy as a tough-as-nails boss that still has a guard to let down for those she takes a liking to.
We’re at the point of this post-pandemic/lockdown where I’m starting to see movies arrive on streaming that I wish to be given full theatrical releases first. Luckiest Girl Alive had a brief run in some theaters but not the high-profile one that it likely deserved. It should play nicely on Netflix and be in the top watch group, but the work from Kunis and others is so good that it shouldn’t be a film that debuts and fades after a weekend. I’m also encouraged by the strong screenplay Knoll delivered on her first attempt and the confident direction from Mike Barker. This new release thriller is a solid watch with a great closing line delivered with razor-sharp precision by Kunis.