Producers: Bruna Papandrea, Jeanne Snow, Erik Feig, Lucy Kitada and Mila Kunis Director: Mike Barker Screenplay: Jessica Knoll Cast: Mila Kunis, Finn Wittrock, Connie Britton, Chiara Aurelia, Scoot McNairy, Thomas Barbusca, Justine Lupe, Alex Barone, Jennifer Beals, Carson MacCormac, Falmar Abuzeid, Isaac Kragten, Gage Munroe, Nicole Huff, Alexandra Beaton and David Webster Distributor: Netflix
Jessica Knoll’s 2015 novel “Luckiest Girl Alive” has been transferred to the screen in a fractured fashion by the author, director Mike Barker and editor Nancy Richardson, resulting in a film that’s sometimes irritatingly confusing and redundant. Yet it remains engrossing and, in the end, compelling, even if the way it wraps things up is rather obvious and self-congratulatory.
Initially TifAni FaNelli (Mila Kunis), as her byline reads, appears to have it all. She’s the prized writer of Lolo Vincent (Jennifer Beals), the editor of a slick women’s magazine, who appreciates her penchant for coming up with provocative stories and titles that will attract readers, and promises to take her with her when she moves to the New York Times Magazine. And she’s engaged to Luke Harrison (Finn Wittrock), a handsome, wealthy young fellow of privilege and pedigree who’s devoted to her, despite her less-than-stellar background.
Ani Fanelli, as she was called as a teen played by Chiara Aurelia, was a shy, middle-class girl pushed by her aggressive mother Dina (Connie Britton) to win a scholarship to posh Bradley Prep. There she was treated poorly by most of her rich, pampered classmates—and the mistreatment took the cruelest possible turn at a drunken party where she was taken advantage of by several swaggering boys, including Liam (Isaac Kragten), Peyton (Gage Munroe) and Dean Barton (Carson MacCormac). She got some sympathy from nerdy class outsider Arthur Finneman (Thomas Barbusca) and lit teacher Andrew Larson (Scoot McNairy). But ultimately she declined to make an official complaint, afraid of her mother’s reaction.
The upshot was that Larson was fired, but Arthur and his friend Ben (David Webster) decided on a plan of direct vengeance, what’s described as the deadliest school shooting in history. Ani survived, but not without a trail of suspicion. The sister of Liam, who was killed in the shooting spree, denounces her online as having been responsible for his death, and Dean (now Alex Barone), who was wounded and left a paraplegic, suggests that she was no victim, but a co-conspirator, despite the fact that she killed one of the shooters.
The entire ugly business is being resurrected just as TifAni is planning her wedding, gamely putting up with Dina’s infuriating interventions and snide condescension from Luke’s relatives, thanks to Luke’s support and that of her excitable best friend Nell (Justine Lupe). Documentarian Aaron Wickersham (Dalmar Abuzeid) is making a film on the shooting, and has already secured the participation of Dean, who has become a noted, politically ambitious crusader for gun control. Wickersham is pressuring TifAni to tell her side of the story on camera, but she resists the idea of reliving the traumatic experience. And Luke is imploring her to come with him to London, where he’s been offered a prominent financial post, and do an MFA instead of continuing her writing career in New York.
Knoll, Barker and Richardson lay out all this in jagged jumps from the present (here, seven or so years after the shooting, depicted in high style) to the past (appropriately dark, with the shooting spree presented in very grim tones), with the production design by Elisa Sauvé using slick, reflective surfaces to mirror the connections between the two periods and Alix Friedberg’s costumes differentiating between the poverty of Ani’s youth and her present high-society elegance. The purpose is clearly to suggest visually the persistence of the trauma she experienced years before into her very different present and its reemergence under the pressure she now feels, and the technique mostly succeeds.
One might easily feel uncomfortable the employment of such serious matters as sexual abuse and gun violence in what comes across as a potboiler ranging tonally from snarky social satire to “true crime” tragedy; but the film works, largely because Kunis holds it together, managing even the tricky proposition of making her narration, delivered directly to the camera, credible even though one knows her recollections might not be entirely truthful. Aurelia carries off the flashback sequences with equal poise, though one might well wonder how this damaged Ani managed the transition to silken smooth TifAni. The rest of the cast can be described as adequate, though Britton and Beals make the most of their relatively brief caricature turns and Barbusca scores as the outcast whose dreams of righting wrongs take a horrible turn. Linda Perry’s score complements the plot changes nicely.
The resolution of the story—and of Ani’s trauma—in a confrontation between her and Dean (and a coda between her and one of his political supporters) is presented in a frankly pat, simplistic way. But like its irony-dripping title, “Luckiest Girl Alive” isn’t deep, despite the serious matters it takes in hand. So long as you don’t expect profundity, the film succeeds on its arguably tawdry but nonetheless effective terms.