Sometimes when watching a movie, you can almost feel the internal struggle going on as the producers, writers and stars wrestle with exactly what kind of movie they are making.
Is Luckiest Girl Alive a dark satire? Is it a glorified Lifetime movie? Is it camp? Is it a mystery? Is its central message one of female empowerment? Could it have been the pilot for a WB series 20 years ago? The answer, I’m afraid, is all of the above.
Based on the 2015 novel of the same name by Jessica Knoll, Luckiest Girl Alive follows Ani Fanelli (Mila Kunis), a writer at a glossy magazine called The Women’s Bible (think Cosmopolitan) where, by her own admission, she put her journalism degree to work by writing in-depth articles about orgasms and blowjobs. “Apparently men’s pleasure is of global importance,” she says. She has a glamorous boss LoLo Vincent (Jennifer Beals, who doesn’t get nearly enough screen time. You can never have too much Jennifer Beals) and dreams of being an editor for The New York Times Magazine. (You know the movie is set in 2015 because people still care about print media). She’s also got a giant rock on her finger thanks to her swanky fiancé Luke Harrison (Finn Wittrock) who “played D1 lacrosse at Colgate, kite surfs on Nantucket and skis in Vail.”
But nothing in Ani’s life is as it seems. She once was TifAni FaNelli (Chiara Aurelia plays the young Ani), a shy high school student just trying to fit in among her rich classmates. In the present-day, Ani’s appearance and persona are meticulously cultivated. She carefully cuts her pizza, eating just a few dainty bites only to scarf down full slices when Finn briefly leaves the table. She’s got a biting inner narration full of prickly barbs. “Petite is what they call short fat girls. I should know. I used to be one,” she says. Her outer diatribes aren’t so great either. “MFA programs are just for white girls who can’t get paid to write,” she tells Finn.
You probably don’t need me to tell you that Ani is harboring a dark past. In 1999, when she was a high schooler, she experienced multiple horrific traumas. (I won’t talk about them here since I don’t want to give the entire plot of the movie away.) Her way of coping was to rebuild her life and bury her well-deserved rage. But 16 years later, a documentary filmmaker is making a movie about what happened all those years ago. Her former classmate Dean Barton (Alex Barone), who is now in a wheelchair because of what happened, is participating in the documentary and continuing to wreak havoc on Ani’s life.
Knoll adapted her own novel here, and the majority of the movie features Kunis’ bitter narration. We are supposed to think Ani’s harsh comments belie her inner pain—a defense mechanism. But mostly they just make her seem like an archvillain, a caricature more than a character. It’s a tough performance choice that often undermines any kind of nuance the movie is trying to achieve. And there wasn’t much to undermine to begin with. I didn’t read the source material, so I don’t know if the novel also vacillated so much in tone, or if this tonal choice plays better on the page than on the screen. After the book was released, Knoll came forward to say Ani’s story was based on her own horrific experience when she was a teen. There’s a worthwhile story in here about the long-term effects of trauma, how society disregards and casts aside adolescent girls, how quick we are to blame the victim, how bullying can lead to terror—but all these messages gets lost in translation.
Kunis is clearly the big draw here, but the flashback portion of the movie is the stronger part of the film by quite a bit. Aurelia, already so great in Freeform’s Cruel Summer, is a compelling screen presence and conveys TifAni’s vulnerability, pain and desire to fit in.
But Luckiest Girl Alive left me with so many questions: Were Ani’s mom Dina (Connie Britton) and Ani’s best friend Nell (Justine Lupe) always this underwritten, or are the majority of their scenes on the cutting room floor? Was there a time when Luke was more than just a pretty face? Why does Ani’s name feature so much random capitalization? (Shout out, I guess, to Netflix’s subtitles for its commitment to Ani’s unique spellings.) The movie’s triumphant ending comes out of nowhere and no one, especially not the viewer, is lucky.
Director: Mike Barker
Writer: Jessica Knoll
Starring: Mila Kunis, Finn Wittrock, Scoot McNairy, Chiara Aurelia, Justine Lupe, Thomas Barbusca, Alex Barone, Carson MacCormac, Isaac Kragten, Gage Munroe, Jennifer Beals, Connie Britton
Release Date: October 7, 2022 (Netflix)
Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer and a member of the Television Critics Association. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal).