⚠️ Trigger warning! The story and the post below have graphic references to topics such as sexual abuse, self-harm, violence, and eating disorders.
Jessica Knoll’s chilling debut novel rocked the best-sellers lists in 2015. Another women’s fiction book about a magazine editor who wants to take on New York City in designer duds, but this version has a twist. Well, several twists that give the borderline unlikeable character a reason for her behavior.
At the time, many readers hated Ani FaNelli, the main character of Luckiest Girl Alive heart-wrenchingly played by Mila Kunis as an adult and Chiara Aurelia as a teenager. Every thought of imperfection runs through Ani’s mind. She is thin because she heads to the gym to ensure every morsel of food is negligible from her dieting and occasional binge eating. She likes BDSM sex; the torture turns her on. She is obsessed with Gucci belts, Rolex watches, and the generational wealth of an engagement ring from her blue-blooded fiancé with a lofty Manhattan business career. She has everything, yet she’s unhappy about everything.
In the film, her thoughts are narrated aloud by Mila. The first three minutes of the film show her holding two knives to consider if they’re worthy to be on her wedding registry. Then we see the blood dripping from the blades. She shakes her head to get rid of the image. Throughout the entire film, it’s difficult to stray your eyes away from the screen because there are numerous visions and flashbacks of the multi-tiered incident that forever wrinkles the threads of Ani’s seemingly perfect life.
Ani is redeemed by the visual representation of her as an adult and as a teenager. Ani used to be TifAni FaNelli, a girl who needed tuition to attend the private Brentley School in the suburbs of Pennsylvania. She makes friends with the outcasts and the popular kids, similar to the comedic classic Mean Girls, but in Luckiest Girl Alive, the friendships feel darker.
One night after a dance, Ani leaves with her popular friends to a house party. She drinks, like all the other kids are drinking. But she blacks out. When she comes to, she can’t move, but a boy is raping her. Then she passes out again. Another boy desecrates her body. She soon finds the strength to get up, but a third boy rapes her anyway. She fights him off to run out of the house and to a gas station where her English teacher takes her to his house so she can avoid her mother.
These events happen in the book. When the book came out, people wondered how the author could come up with such a horrible story that unfortunately happens more in this society than we would like to acknowledge. It took author Jessica Knoll a year to share her story of being raped by three boys at a party as a high school student, as a minor, as a girl.
Nonprofit organizations RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) and Sandy Hook Promise reviewed the scripts for the sexual assault and gun violence content, and an intimacy coordinator was on set to support the cast and crew, the author told Vanity Fair.
What comes after the rapes in the story is even more violent. Ani’s outcast friends also had their own stories of humiliation executed by the same boys who had raped Ani. They get upset with Ani for not standing up, until they realize they hadn’t stood up for themselves. Without Ani’s knowledge, they bomb the cafeteria at lunchtime and start shooting select kids. This takes place in 1999, the same year the country was horrified to see the mass school shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado.
Ani fends for herself going through the school looking for her popular friends who are being targeted. Her friend armed with a rifle hands her the weapon to shoot the boy who had raped her when she was conscious. Dean, played by Carson MacCormac as a teen and Alex Barone as an adult, is crying for his life. Ani can’t do it. Arthur, played by Thomas Barbusca, kept pushing her to fight back, stop protecting her rapists. He shoots Dean at the waist. Ani stabs Arthur to death. She wanted to stop the control of being told what she should do about her trauma and stop the bloodshed triggered by her trauma.
When the public memorials begin, Ani is turned away with her mother, played by Connie Britton, because she was accused of having relationships with Dean and two of the boys who were killed. That’s when her mother first hears Ani had been raped. Her mother berates her for drinking at the party, laying the blame on Ani for the rapes, but says she will attain a lawyer.
Ani’s relationship with her mother is still strained as they prepare for her luxurious wedding 16 years later. Her mother doesn’t want to relive the situation. She hates that Ani blames her for making Ani stay at the Brentley School after the multiple incidents in order to get into the best college. She hates that Ani blames her for the slut-shaming; it’s not her fault Ani developed faster than other girls. What was she supposed to do with a curvy daughter accused of being involved in a school shooting because the daughter had been raped while drinking at an off-campus party? She wants Ani to ignore the past and focus on the present.
The emotions of the school shooting are rawer than ever as an independent documentarian, played by Dalmar Abuzeid, keeps reaching out to Ani to convince her to discuss the nation’s “largest private school shooting in history.” As the documentarian tries to get Ani on board, Ani watches Dean’s interviews on the TODAY show and other shows as he paints himself purely as the wheelchair-bound victim and continues the allegation that Ani knew the school shooting was going to happen. Getting famous off his memoir, Dean signs onto the documentary. So does Ani, as long as she doesn’t see Dean.
When she sits down for the interview taped at the staircase of the Brentley School, Ani tells her side of the story. She says she didn’t know her friends had plans to kill classmates over what happened to her and what happened to them. Her rapes became inconsequential to the coverage the public was fed about the shooting. During her interview, Dean starts wheeling himself toward her. She leaves, feeling unprotected again. The documentarian chases her outside and says her story will help other women. She says the women seem to be fine without hearing her story.
Back in Manhattan, Ani is a senior editor at a women’s magazine similar to Cosmo, but she has received an offer from The New York Times. She decides maybe her story could be told in her own way, so she writes a draft essay. Once her boss, played by Flashdance legend Jennifer Beals, skims the essay, she tells her own story of being raped by a high school boyfriend. The essay is not intense enough, she argues. Ani is too afraid to reveal her rapists and describe the nitty-gritty, including her true emotions. That will help women. Not surface-level bullshit.
Ani goes back to the drawing board by dropping in on one of Dean’s book tour stops in the city. Afterward, Ani approaches him about pushing the lie that she was involved in the shooting. Dean says he’ll stop pushing that lie if she keeps quiet about the rape. The power dynamics are in full range, where a man is believed over a woman, a boy is believed over a girl, especially a girl depicted as a slut after being sexually assaulted. Ani pushes that Dean should admit he had raped her when they were 16. He finally admits it, reluctantly, as if he’s tired of hearing that allegation. Satisfied, Ani walks away and makes sure her iPhone recorded their conversation.
Meanwhile, Ani arrives at her rehearsal dinner on Nantucket. She gets word that her new and improved essay will run in The New York Times. Her best friend from college, played by Justine Lupe, is thrilled for her. Ani’s fiancé Luke, played by Finn Wittrock, does not have the same reaction. Like Ani’s mother, he’s tired of hearing about the 16-year-old traumas, especially at their wedding weekend. Why can’t they be happy on the happiest of days? Why does Ani have to keep bringing up her traumas that always need unpacking? Ani admits that Luke was a box to check off on her list of a perfect life. She was a “wind-up doll” that said whatever she needed to say around him. After realizing that she needs to keep healing with a partner supportive of that healing, she calls off the wedding.
Back in the city, Ani is getting emails from women touched by her essay. They had been sexually assaulted, too. They were familiar with their assaulter or assaulters, too. They didn’t report the assault or assaults, too. They weren’t believed, too. Then another female reporter accosts Ani on Fifth Avenue and complains she didn’t have to ruin Dean’s reputation. After all, Dean has done so much for the community. Ani tells her to fuck off.
The film follows the novel, which is published by Simon & Schuster, almost to a T. In the end credits designed like the original paperback with bright yellow font against a wilting black rose that turns into a blooming red rose, the author is listed as the screenwriter and executive producer. For the author to have such a strong presence over the film, it brings a unique energy to the project.
Jessica Knoll fought to remain the screenwriter for the film, unlike many other authors who do not have the experience of writing screenplays. She may not have had the experience, but she knew she had to have ownership of how the story will play onscreen. The dedication is apparent as one of the better book-to-TV projects available on streaming now. She makes an early cameo in the elevator with Mila’s Ani on the way to work.
The cinematography, as in every scene is flawless, tells the story in different time periods, in different places exquisitely. We see the little things that annoy Ani, that would annoy many perfectionists, like a loose thread hanging from a steering wheel. We also see the simulated rapes and shootings that are very hard to watch, especially knowing it’s fiction based on true events.
Because of the graphic images, reviewers from top news outlets have said the film is unstructured. The film packs a lot with a heavy punch. The film is not fodder for true crime, another complaint in some of these reviews. It’s about a traumatized woman whose flashbacks are getting worse as a classmate’s memoir is selling and a documentary is forthcoming based on her traumas and void of her voice. She is not healed in the end despite the high readership of an essay about the traumas. It’s not a story representing every woman in the #MeToo movement. It’s one story that has many parallels to the author’s real-life story.
Watching the film is more intense than reading the book. Like we said above, the book had readers hate Ani, but watching two actresses play Ani in the throes of her traumatic experiences we first learn about in the book gives a more fine-tuned visual. If you were not affected by the story through the book, you will be affected by the story through the film. It’s a complex portrayal of a triggering story that came from the author’s own experiences. It was never an easy story to digest, but it was a story people were willing to read.