Novelist Jessica Knoll’s breakout 2015 work, Luckiest Girl Alive, is about a woman whose seemingly flawless existence is corroded by prior suffering.
The book’s cover combines enormous, shouting type over a cheap-looking black rose, a symbol of rebirth rendered tacky, touch emo.
It’s time for a literary smash in the middle of the 2010s, but it also seems to be looking forward to the 2022 Netflix adaptation, which will strip the novel of its biting humor and sharp observations of New York’s corporate elite in favor of a trite, undeserved empowerment song.
The cinematic adaptation, directed by Mike Barker and based on a screenplay by Knoll, has the same problem as this summer’s Where the Crawdads Sing, which was also based on a book success starring a tough female protagonist and had Reese Witherspoon cast in the lead role.
Crawdads producer and one-time buyer of the rights to Knoll’s novel Reese Witherspoon ultimately decided not to be involved with the film adaptation.
Both movies perpetuate the problems inherent in the originals. Movie adaptations often suffer from the same issues that plagued the books they were based on; in the case of The Luckiest Girl Alive, these issues were compounded by the filmmakers’ decision to smooth over the novel’s more unsettling psychology and graft the ending onto the #MeToo movement.
Upon its debut, Knoll’s novel was compared to Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl (2012) and the screenplay she wrote for David Fincher’s excellent 2014 picture adaptation.
Comparable works include Emerald Fennell’s pitch-black Promising Young Woman and Gone Girl; each is an extreme distillation of the huge chasm between a white, conventionally attractive woman’s external serenity and inner bile, with flashbacks suggesting a vicious twist.
The first part of Luckiest Girl Alive lives up to its legacy. Mila Kunis’s character, Ani FaNelli, is a ruthless thirtysomething. She presents as mild-mannered, charming, and wealthy; she wears Cartier, is best friends with the stunning Nell (Juliet Lupe of Succession), and is engaged to the rugged Nantucket golden boy, Luke Finn Wittrock, born to play a trust fund baby. Her judgmental, scathing inner monologue is like liquid fire.
She is a “try-hard former financial aid child” who is obsessed with the outward image of affluence despite widespread prejudice that “petite,” as one salesperson put it, is “for short fat females”.
She brags that she doesn’t eat carbs, but when Luke’s not there, she gorges on pizza. The film succeeds most brilliantly in its depiction of the fragile frenzied energy of New York City in 2015, with its crowded subways, peacocking office clothing, and Ani’s ever-present quest for a higher-status status symbol and a more impressive performance.
Already brittle when she goes knife shopping with Luke for their wedding registry and imagines the knives glistening with blood, Ani’s defenses collapse when a documentary filmmaker requests her perspective on a sad event.
The fact that Ani survived the 1999 school massacre that left several classmates dead and Dean Barton (Alex Barone), afterward a politician, and paraplegic, is given prominent treatment in the film. That alone would be traumatic enough, but flashbacks to her time as TiffAni, a financial-aid sophomore at a wealthy private academy, expose the true narrative, the cause for her reinvention, and her ruin.
Young TiffAni (Chiara Aurelia) is an unremarkable adolescent: she likes English but is humiliated by her obnoxious middle-class mother (Connie Britton), and she is both down to party and interested in English. Barker deftly depicts the night of the horrific sexual assault that splits Ani’s life in two in the style of recollections clouded by booze and trauma.
Fragmented, unsteady, and full of tremors. Aurelia shines in the role of a humiliated adolescent who resists the demands of her English instructor (Scoot McNairy) and the comfort of her tormented companions Arthur (Thomas Barbusca) and Ben (David Webster).
So, the fact that the rest of the story is so preachy is all the more disappointing following that disclosure. Despite having some thriller undertones, the film does not have a twist. Kunis tries to convey Ani’s tender suffering under her frigid exterior, but her surefooted portrayal is suffocated by clichés.
What could have been and was better depicted in the novel a portrait of a woman learning to speak her truth devolves into the perfect victim’s story: someone who survives an infamous tragedy, whose pain is completely misunderstood and discredited, who builds the perfect life only to have the dark secret undo it, and who then rises stronger.
Luckiest Girl Alive explores themes of a shattered life, including the release of letting go, the search for answers, and the pleasure of subverting traditional norms towards women.
The tale it presents, however, is nothing more than a vain, self-interested fabrication.