Producers: Lindsay Tapscott, Katie Bird Nolan, Christina Piovesan and Noah Segal   Director: Mary Nighy  Screenplay: Alanna Francis   Cast: Anna Kendrick, Kaniehtiio Horn, Wunmi Mosaku, Charlie Carrick, Ethan Mitchell and Mark Winnick   Distributor: Lionsgate

Grade:  C+

A mousy young woman gradually recognizes the toxic nature of a psychologically abusive relationship with a manipulative boyfriend in Mary Nighy’s debut feature.  One can criticize “Alice, Darling” for a lack of subtlety, but it does showcase an impressive performance by Anna Kendrick, an actress whose dramatic ability has often been overlooked. 

Kendrick is Alice, who’s apparently capable professionally, though her work is never really specified, but has proven unwise in her private life.  Somehow she’s become so dependent on her live-in boyfriend Simon (Charlie Carrick), a painter worried about his career, that she’s either oblivious about how possessive he is, or so insecure that she’s willing to submit to his cunning mechanisms of control: he conceals his emotional blackmail in a guise of over-solicitousness that can, however, take on a cutting, accusatory edge.

That’s apparent to Alice’s best friends Tess (Kaniehtiio Horn) and Sophie (Wunmi Mosaku), who watch warily as she’s bombarded by texts from him while the three are out for an evening; they even nudge her into noticing the attentions of their waiter (Ethan Mitchell), who adds his phone number to her receipt.

But Alice leaves early and takes care to destroy that receipt before Simon can see it and get unreasonably jealous.  Then, after assuring him that his career is on track and their spark undimmed, she proceeds to fashion a lie to deceive him about a weeklong stay she’s planning with her girlfriends to celebrate Tess’ thirtieth birthday at the lakeside cabin of Sophie’s parents.  She tells him that it’s a work trip to Minneapolis, but the deception eats away at her.  She’s constantly pulling at her hair and nibbling at her nails, unable to enjoy herself as she awaits the next text from the man who needs her so desperately that she can’t help but respond.

Nighy and screenwriter Alanna Francis are very good at portraying the way the friendship among the three women can suddenly turn from affectionate banter to something sharper as Tess and Sophie observe how Alice has changed under Simon’s supposedly supportive thumb and she takes offense.  Even though the script never manages to explain the history behind their closeness—on the surface, at least, they don’t appear the most likely of long-time comrades, with Tess and Sophie’s career paths very different from Alice’s.

But both Horn and Mosaku give their characters, as sketchy as they are, a lived-in feel, the former brusquer and the latter more motherly.  Both pale, though, compared to Kendrick, who puts her natural talent for nervousness and skittishness to good use in convincing us that Alice is a sympathetic person, if also an obstinately obtuse one when it comes to Simon’s machinations.

There are, however, problems when the film moves beyond its psychological portrait of Alice into symbolism and melodrama.  From the very start Alice is shown submerged in water, as if she were drowning in Simon’s stifling attention, a metaphor that recurs again and again.  A thread is introduced about a local girl who’s gone missing, possibly abducted—Alice even joins the search for her at one point, apparently to suggest that she’s lost too, and in possible danger.  One specific episode related to it—Alice’s investigation of an abandoned house where she finds what might be a clue to the girl’s disappearance—seems utterly extraneous, especially since nothing is ultimately made of it. 

But the biggest miscalculation comes in the third act, when Simon intrudes on the women’s get-together and Alice, after we’ve watched her, through bouts of introspection larded with flashbacks, come to realize how cowed she’s become, appears to fall back into her habit of catering to him despite her friends’ glares of disapproval.  Carrick is good—perhaps too good—at bringing a sinister aura to everything Simon says and does, drawing a contrast between him and Alice’s two friends that makes overly obvious a reality that up to then had been more deftly treated.  The final resolution, moreover, is extremely heavy-handed in fully bringing out Simon’s true colors. 

Production designer Jennifer Morden, costumer Marissa Schwartz and cinematographer Mike McLaughlin give the film a raw, naturalistic look that fits the narrative, the exceptions being those dreamy underwater episodes, and editor Gareth C. Scales inserts the flashback clips with as much nuance as the technique allows.  Owen Pallett’s score tends occasionally to be overbearing, but is generally supportive rather than intrusive.

As a chamber drama of a young women’s gradual liberation from psychological abuse, “Alice, Darling” carries emotional power, largely because of Kendrick’s outstanding performance; but it is not without serious flaws.