The book cover for Luckiest Girl Alive, Jessica Knoll’s bestselling 2015 debut novel about a woman’s seemingly perfect life corroded by past trauma, features large, blaring font over a cheap-looking black rose – a symbol of rebirth rendered tacky, a bit emo. It’s of the time for a mid-2010s literary hit, but also seems to anticipate the 2022 Netflix adaptation, which wrings the novel of its caustic wit and serrated observations of New York careerists into a hollow, unearned empowerment anthem.
The film version, directed by Mike Barker from a screenplay by Knoll, suffers from a similar problem to this summer’s Where the Crawdads Sing, another adaptation of a literary smash about a jagged female protagonist tapped by Reese Witherspoon. (Witherspoon, a producer on Crawdads, originally bought the rights to Knoll’s novel but dropped out of the project.) Both films inherit and reify the flaws of their source material. Many of the movies’ problems are book problems, made worse, in the case of Luckiest Girl Alive, by decisions to sand down the novel’s more uncomfortable psychology and graft the ending on to the #MeToo movement.
Knoll’s novel drew comparisons upon release to Gillian Flynn, author of the 2012 novel Gone Girl and screenwriter for David Fincher’s superlative 2014 film adaptation. Luckiest Girl Alive does work in a similar lane to Gone Girl or even Emerald Fennell’s pitch-black Promising Young Woman: they’re extreme distillations of the vast chasm between a (white, conventionally beautiful) woman’s outward tranquility and inner bile, with flashbacks suggesting a savage twist.
Luckiest Girl Alive delivers on some of that legacy in its first half: Ani FaNelli, played as a thirtysomething by Mila Kunis, is cutthroat. She appears demure, charmed, moneyed – a Cartier-wearing sex advice writer at a women’s magazine, best friends with beautiful Nell (Succession’s Justine Lupe) and engaged to strapping Nantucket golden boy Luke (Finn Wittrock, born to play a trust fund baby) . Every inner voice, provided via acidic monologue, is molten judgment. A “try-hard former financial aid kid”, she obsesses over the appearance of wealth, ravages against her perception (“petite”, as one salesperson calls her, is “for short fat girls”). She prides herself on avoiding carbs then stuffs her face with pizza when Luke isn’t looking. The film is strongest in capturing the brittle freneticism of 2015 New York – packed subways, peacocking office dress, Ani’s eye always on a more prestigious status symbol, a better performance.
The cracks appear from the beginning – shopping with Luke for wedding registry knives, Ani imagines them dripping in blood – and widen when a documentarian approaches her to tell her side of a tragic story. The film foregrounds the fact that Ani survived and was partially blamed for a 1999 school shooting which killed several classmates and paralyzed Dean Barton (Alex Barone), who went on to become a politician. That would be trauma enough, but the real story, her reason for reinvention and her undoing, is revealed in flashbacks to her time as TiffAni, a financially-aided sophomore at a posh private academy.
The young TiffAni (Chiara Aurelia) is a nondescript teen: interested in English, embarrassed by her gauche, middle-class mother (Connie Britton), down to party. Barker smartly renders the night that cleaves Ani’s life in two – a horrifying sexual assault – in the vein of memories blinkered by alcohol and trauma. Shaky, piecemeal, destabilizing. Aurelia is impressive as a teenager reeling from shame and bristling at pressure to report from her English teacher (Scoot McNairy) and bullied friends Arthur (Thomas Barbusca) and Ben (David Webster).
It’s a shame, then, that everything after that reveal is so heavy-handed. There is no twist, as the film’s echoes of a thriller suggest. Kunis does her best to hold on to Ani’s fragile pain beneath the icy shell, but her surefooted performance drowns in cliches. The film devolves not into what could be (as was better portrayed in the novel) the portrait of a woman learning to speak her truth, but a perfect victim’s story: someone who survived an infamous tragedy, whose pain was wholly misunderstood and discredited, who builds a perfect life only to have the dark secret undo it, then rises stronger. There are pieces of Luckiest Girl Alive that seem interested in a life splintered by trauma, in the relief of unburdening, the hunger for certainty over what happened, the thrill of playing on cultural expectations for women. But the story it ultimately tells is an empty, self-serving fantasy.