processing trauma as feel-good revenge
In 2017, the “Luckiest Girl Alive” bestselling author and, now, screenwriter Jessica Knoll wrote about what happened to her at age 15, and how it informed the writing of the book that became the Netflix adaptation, streaming Oct. 7.
The opening of Knoll’s essay: “The first person to tell me I was gang-raped was a therapist, seven years after the fact. The second was my literary agent, five years later, only she wasn’t talking about me. She was talking about Ani, the protagonist of my novel, which is a work of fiction. What I’ve kept to myself, up until today, is that its inspiration is not.”
For the screen version of “Luckiest Girl Alive,” Knoll made changes and added an upbeat epilogue. The essentials, however, along with the narrative particulars and the trauma underneath it all, remain much the same, which is how pre-sold fans of the book prefer it.
Director Mike Barker’s slick, vaguely pernicious take on the material is a blend of dead-serious anguish and feel-good vindication. While many will find the results effective, others will not simply resist the guessing games and pulp instincts at odds with the trauma, but actively resent them.
Mila Kunis, cagey and precise, stars as the 2015 edition of TifAni “Ani” FaNelli, hotshot Manhattanite on the rise. She’s a staffer at a Cosmopolitan-type monthly magazine, prized for her way with words and column ideas in the “how to please your man” realm. Ani’s square-jawed, archetypally impressive fiancee (Finn Wittrock) is the one with the Old Family money and outlandishly patronizing relatives; our protagonist is the one who, in the eyes of everyone envying her good fortune, scored.
“Luckiest Girl Alive” piles on the clues to the two major and grimly assaultive crises of her life. She can’t shake memories and visual images of what the Netflix trailer infers: a gang rape 15 years earlier, followed in dramatically close order by a fatal school shooting. Ani’s precise role in that shooting is a riddle to be solved for the viewer’s third-act payoff. A documentary filmmaker entices Ani to participate in the filming; also involved in the tell-all doc is a fellow survivor, severely injured and now using a wheelchair, who has written his own fishy account of what happened. The story toggles between teen Ani (played by Chiara Aurelia) and the steely adult version, played by Kunis.
Ani’s life, imminent marriage and ambitions come with storm clouds that will not dissipate. Her insufferably smug fiance wants her to forget what happened, keep quiet and move on. Ani’s mother (Connie Britton), status-conscious to an unconscionable degree, wants the same. Ani has lost track of who she is, at heart, and Kunis’ persistent voice-over narration delivers zingers, confessions, snark and pain in equal measure.
“Luckiest Girl Alive” is no character study; it’s all about laying narrative track and setting up the what-really-happened part of what Ani calls “a few lurid secrets.” The issues here couldn’t be more pertinent. But Knoll’s thriller is a sleek but pretty crude example of processing PTSD for Netflix and chilling, and a shot at the hallowed trending Top 10.
“Luckiest Girl Alive” — 2 stars
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MPAA rating: R (for violent content, rape, sexual material, language throughout and teen substance use)
Running time: 1:55
How to watch: Premieres Oct. 7 on Netflix.
Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.
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