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‘Luckiest Girl Alive’ Review: Mila Kunis Leads Shaky Assault Survivor Story

Written by novelist Jessica Knoll and drawing from her own experience as a gang rape survivor, this fractured film only works in fits and starts.

Luckiest Girl Alive, Mila Kunis

“Luckiest Girl Alive”

Netflix

The irony of “Luckiest Girl Alive” isn’t just reserved for the title: Isn’t it ironic how those who brutalize others are the ones who never seem to feel pain? In the vein of viral ’90s-set series “Yellowjackets” and “Cruel Summer,” “Luckiest Girl Alive” relies on flashbacks to frame the tentacles of trauma more than two decades later.

Mila Kunis stars as 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 her prestigious high school all those years ago that lead up 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.

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 penned a personal essay for Lena Dunham’s Lenny Letter saying that writing “Luckiest Girl Alive” helped her confront her trauma. “‘Luckiest Girl Alive’ is a work of fiction. What I’ve kept to myself, up until today, is that its inspiration is not,” Knoll wrote in 2016. “I’ve been running and I’ve been ducking and I’ve been dodging because I’m scared. I’m scared people won’t call what happened to me rape because for a long time, no one did.”

That fear is what keeps young Ani, played by “Cruel Summer” scene-stealer Chiara Aurelia, debating whether or not to go to the police, or even tell her judgmental mother (Connie Britton), after she was drugged, repeatedly raped, and held hostage by her abusers. “Luckiest Girl Alive” is strongest in its flashback sequences, with Aurelia and Kunis’ respective performances feeling like they almost belong to two different films.

But perhaps that’s the point: After surviving something so brutal — and director Barker and Aurelia certainly do not shy away from showing just how brutal it is — maybe Ani is violently split in two, and those performances shouldn’t be the same person. Unfortunately, that’s not the only thing about “Luckiest Girl Alive” that doesn’t totally add up.

There is a dark humor to Knoll’s insert of Kunis, whose voiceover acts as a way to puts capture Ani’s id. The quippy, sarcastic framing of Ani’s carefully curated adult persona doesn’t always land. It’s not entirely because of Kunis, who truly gives her all (alas, this movie still entirely belongs 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.

Luckiest Girl Alive

“Luckiest Girl Alive”

Netflix

As Ani (Kunis) glides through a department store to build out her wedding registry, she caresses a butcher knife, contemplating the weight of the blade and its implications. We don’t know yet why Ani feels compelled to graze the edge of the knife, nor why she at once seems empowered and frightened by it. As the department store salesman encourages Ani to try a lighter knife set since she is “petite,” Ani’s voiceover says: “Petite is what they call short fat girls. I should know: I used to be one.”

And that’s how we start the film, that “reveal” being the one that ushers in the opening credits and title card. The control of image, bodies, appearance, and perception is the backbone of the film, but to tell us that while cutting to Aurelia starts the film on an awkward and uncomfortable note.

Ani then, again, tells us all about her picture-perfect fiancé, with Wittrock’s role confined to a robot of sorts whose only thoughts are put into words by Ani. A would-be 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 even worth a name and just in reference to Ani) could just as easily be a stand-in extra for “Get Out.” It’s almost a parody, seeing Ani’s future in-laws spout fake news about how guns are necessities, and no doubt siding with Brett Kavanaugh if placed in the real world.

Do these people not know that their future daughter-in-law survived a highly publicized school shooting? Or that she was raped, something that we discover Wittrock knows much later, which makes even more of his actions (not understanding her desire for rough sex, calling her “crazy” for being anxious) incomprehensible?

Ani spends her days at a Cosmopolitan-esque magazine, again harkening back to Knoll’s real career path. Titled Women’s Bible in the film, the glossy mag is beneath Ani, and we’re told this constantly. Ani belongs at The New York Times. She’s just that brilliant, and her boss (the iconic Jennifer Beals) is going to get her there. “Men’s pleasure is of global importance,” Ani scoffs as pitches about sex are thrown around the editorial desk. There’s that irony again, a rape survivor covering sex and love for a women’s magazine. But this is also the job she chose, and she’s great at it.

Even as an adult, Ani is bombarded with Facebook comments from shooting victims’ families telling her she’s a “psycho slut,” and we soon learn that Ani is really named TiffAni, the duality of her splintered persona opening up for us to learn what really happened ahead of the shooting. Was TiffAni involved? Was she complicit in the death of her rapists, one of whom survived and accused her before she could tell the truth about him? That survivor is a perpetrator, and the lines between victim and assailant are blurred just barely 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 says. Well, some things really are that bad, and Ani disassociating from the pain her body is experiencing in everyday life is more of what was needed. It’s the small snippets, like Ani being scared of subways, that color “Luckiest” differently and hint at what could have been. The subtlety hinted at teases “Luckiest Girl Alive” as a “Don’t Worry Darling”-esque saga — a perfect life that surreally falls away at the edges, giving way to a more sinister past truth. Small edits could have propelled the film into a dark drama instead of something resembling a PSA.

“Luckiest Girl Alive”

Netflix

It’s an unexpected confrontation between Ani and her former teacher (Scoot McNairy) that proves to be the strongest scene with Kunis’ adult Ani, but not enough of the past is bridged for “Luckiest” to be a complete film. Other standout moments are thanks to the dedicated performances from chameleon Britton, Aurelia, and Thomas Barbusca of “Big Time Adolescence” fame, who plays Ani’s high school pal. Barbusca brings an unhinged Duckie from “Sixteen Candles” feel to teen Ani’s protector, his painted black nails and wild hair making him a charismatic alternative to Ani’s popular friend group who later brutalized her.

Barbusca and Aurelia’s onscreen chemistry sells the emotional components of the film and builds to the shocking truth of the on-campus tragedy. Ani is caught in the crosshairs, in every sense, no matter how much wealth she tries to marry into as an adult.

Every “almost” moment — Kunis and Beals almost being part of a watershed discussion about how rape is dealt with across generations of women, McNairy and Aurelia almost discussing her attack, and Wittrock almost having a full scene with Kunis without his character saying something asinine (“You used to be fun!” he yells after Ani finally publishes the truth about her gang rape) — gives us glimpses at what “Luckiest” could have been. If only we were so lucky.

Grade: C+

“Luckiest Girl Alive” starts streaming on Netflix on Friday, October 7.

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