Please read with discretion, as this post has content related to sexual assault and gun violence.
“Sometimes I feel like a wind-up doll. Turn my key, and I’ll tell you exactly what you want to hear,” confesses Ani Fanelli (Mila Kunis), the protagonist of Luckiest Girl Alive. It’s a fitting descriptor for a woman whose entire persona has been carefully manufactured to manipulate others, elevate her status, and bury her trauma.
Her stream-of-consciousness narration is full of biting one-liners, but the wind-up doll analogy is the only one stated twice: once in her head and once out loud to her fiancé, Luke Harrisson (Finn Wittrock). The revelation that she has been lying to please him has the potential to shatter their tenuous relationship, but it’s a necessary first step in the long process of transforming an automaton into a human being.
Luckiest Girl Alive, directed by Mike Barker with a screenplay by Jessica Knoll (author of the novel by the same name), is a story about the impact of trauma, inelegantly wrapped up in the trappings of a whodunnit thriller. At its best, it’s a raw depiction of how untended pain tears apart our relationships and our sense of self. At its worst, it’s clunky, joyless, and exploitative.
Ultimately, it fails to satisfy as it substitutes career success and the ability to toss out a cutting zinger for genuine personal growth.
This review contains spoilers.
At the start of the film, Ani appears to be living a charmed life, writing for an elite women’s magazine and engaged to the wealthy and handsome Luke. However, those of us privy to her inner thoughts quickly become aware that not everything is as it seems. Within the first few minutes, Ani describes her romance as a “grift,” lies to Luke about eating a pizza, and experiences a shocking flashback to holding a bloody knife. She artfully covers her PTSD while continuing to browse for registry items at Williams-Sonoma.
Her lies extend to other areas of her life. Her mom, Dina (Connie Britton), drunk and obnoxious at her wedding dress fitting, points out that Ani’s modest gown was chosen to please the stuffy high-society snobs who will be her guests, rather than reflect her own tastes. While Dina’s manner of delivering this message is brutally unkind, Ani is most upset by the fact that she is right.
Ani embraces the grift at work as well, commandeering her boss’ corner office for meetings where she pretends to be an executive. This is a risky endeavor, considering this same boss has promised to bring Ani along with her to The New York Times Magazine. But Ani’s entire life is a carefully constructed charade built around a single goal: legitimacy.
To cut an extremely long and convoluted story short, Ani’s aim is to become high-status enough that people will finally believe her when she confronts her rapist.
Dean Barton (Alex Barone) is a respected author and gun control activist, having been confined to a wheelchair after living through the “deadliest private school shooting in American history.” He has also publicly accused Ani, who was a scholarship kid at the elite Brentley School, of having been involved in the attack. It’s his way of discrediting her accusations of rape, a strategy that has worked well thus far. As long as Ani writes sex columns and he’s in a wheelchair, she considers herself at a disadvantage. Maybe if she gets that job at the Times, she thinks, she’ll be ready. Then again, her heirloom engagement ring is a useful tool for manipulating emotions. “How dare anyone think I did any of that while wiping away a single tear wearing this ring?” she ponders.
There’s a lot happening in Ani’s backstory. As it slowly unfolds in flashback, we piece together a story that combines gang rape with a school shooting that culminates in Ani first being urged to shoot her rapist and then stabbing the shooter to death.
Any one of these traumas would be enough to motivate Ani’s emotional retreat. When combined, the impact of the individual events gets lost in a haze of pain. The intention seems to be that Ani’s trauma isn’t normal trauma, that she is in fact the unluckiest girl alive, but the effect is that everything is minimized. For many viewers, it must feel like a bit of an insult.
Little by little, Ani decides to open up about her past, but truth-telling doesn’t come easily for her. Her first attempt, motivated by a documentary filmmaker, is full of her standard obfuscations. Notably, she presents her mother as having supported her, when in fact Dina blamed her for jeopardizing her status and putting herself “at risk.” When Dean interrupts the filming, she walks out on the movie, determined to tell the story her own way. But her first attempt at a New York Times exposé falls flat.
Ani’s boss and mentor is the only person who sees through her act and encourages her to reveal the true source of her pain. “It’s a lot easier to be angry with the guy,” her mentor advises, “An approximation of honesty doesn’t make the cut at the paper of record. Write it like no one will ever read it.” It’s good advice, and we’re glad when Ani finally takes it. Her second draft is a searing indictment not only of Dean, but of everyone who failed her throughout her adolescence. For the fiancé Luke, it’s also a validation of what he’s always feared: that he’s nothing more than “another box you have to check off to convince yourself you’re doing okay.” The revelation could have been an opportunity for Luke and Ani to finally be vulnerable with one another. Instead, Luke gets angry at Ani for not being “fun” anymore and wishes she would deal with her emotions “in private.” It’s a waste of potential for growth, which bodes poorly for the rest of the movie.
It’s good that Ani tells the truth, not only for the sake of justice but for her own mental health. Unfortunately, Ani’s honesty doesn’t seem to prompt any actual healing. Instead, Ani gets a spot on the Today Show and, of course, the coveted New York Times job. Oh, and she gets to curse out a nasty lady on the street who criticizes her for outing Dean as a rapist. “I’ll always remember you as the woman I told to go f*** herself on Fifth Avenue.” Cha-ching! Victory!
It’s a pretty empty victory. A job at The New York Times and the ability to tell people off with confidence are both poor substitutes for what Ani really needs: love and support.
Most people who face their trauma head-on are not rewarded with a dream job. They’re not rewarded with anything other than the possibility of a more fulfilling life, a more honest life, and the ability to trust again. Ani doesn’t seem to get any of these, so the whole journey ends up feeling bleak and empty. The premise of the ending seems to be that it’s better to be alone with honesty than in relationships built on false pretenses. That’s inarguably true, but it’s also a false binary. By the end of the movie, we yearn to see something new replace the emptiness Ani has carried inside of her.
We yearn for Ani to experience hope. Hope is what keeps us moving through pain, rather than mired in it. Hope makes room in the soul for grace. Grace allows for healing and, eventually, genuine love. This is not the false price of love based on status, but a new love that is freely given and genuinely accepting. It doesn’t have to be romantic, it only has to be real. Love looks forward to life, not backward to death. Love creates, restores, and renews. And it’s what Ani has been missing all along.