During the first half hour of the new psychological thriller ALICE, DARLING, I wondered why Anna Kendrick’s character would ever put up with such bullying from her boyfriend. Alice seems to be far too smart, mature and poised to put up with the passive/aggressive nonsense of her lover Simon (Charlie Carrick). But then, as the story continued, I realized that such questions are precisely the point and the aim of this narrative was to demonstrate how smart, mature, and poised people can fall into such traps. Less a relationship and more a series of mind games, Alice loses herself in this creep, and how the film concentrates on this intelligent woman’s inner struggles to overcome the dysfunction elevates it beyond any Lifetime “woman in peril” inklings.
That’s not to say that ALICE, DARLING doesn’t employ several egregious cliches that it needs to overcome almost immediately. The character of Simon feels like a trope at first more than a real boyfriend. To mask the sociopathy of the character, screenwriter Alanna Francis makes Simon British, and posh British at that, giving him a too-easy elegance that makes him feel almost like a Bond villain. Additionally, Simon is an ‘artiste’ with a capital A hoping to wow the New York City elite with his provocative think pieces brushed upon canvas. Yikes. Finally – surprise, surprise – he’s handsome, fit, and seemingly an insatiable lover, willing to turn a shower encounter into sweaty poses that give his relationship with Alice a Cinemax vibe from the late 90s.
Fortunately, Francis’s script doesn’t make sinister Simon a major on-screen character with a ton of screen time until the final act. Before then, he is almost entirely seen in flashbacks bouncing around Alice’s mind as she contemplates their damaged relationship and what to do about it. Alice does so while spending time with lifelong friends Tess (Kaniehtillo Horn) and Sophie (Wunmi Mosaku) during a weekend escape to a cabin in upstate New York. The film significantly turns Alice’s crisis with Simon into a parallel one with her friends as her moody and often belligerent behavior starts to threaten their relationships too.
Of course, Tess and Sophie can see the forest for the trees and they have little use for Simon, especially as they witness the hoops he’s putting their BFF through. The angst in their friend is clearly visible as she is constantly taking his texts or calls while they’re supposed to be having fun. Poor Alice can barely enjoy a campfire, a swim in the lake, or a hike without obsessing over her man. What her friends don’t see is that Alice is even more rattled when she’s alone. She can’t sleep, is starting to lose her hair, and stares at herself in the mirror, wondering who this terrified person is staring back at her.
Francis was smart to not write Simon as a physically abusive man. The threat of his wrath is enough to drive Alice bonkers and such discretionary writing gives the terror in this film an expert psychological slant. Alice becomes a version of Simon in a way, aiming many of her insecurities toward her friends similarly to his modus operandi. The theme of projection helps elevate matters here ostensibly, as does Kendrick’s underplaying of it all. The best part of the film comes from the fact that her friends aren’t just amiable sidekicks or a Greek chorus, but fully-developed, layered characters that make this film a study of friendship as well. I wanted to spend more time with these three women under better circumstances as they have great rapport and depth.
Kendrick took this movie because it’s a good part, but also because she’s experienced similar events in her personal life. I’m sure most who’ll watch this can relate as well because we’ve all been there, be it with a lover, spouse, family member, or boss. The fact is that very good people often make very bad choices, and this story examines such behavior in a way that we can all recognize ourselves in the narrative.
Director Mary Nighy never plays anything too broadly, and she adds delicate touches throughout whether it’s easing into the flashbacks, lingering on a character’s reaction a few beats longer to give such shots more meaning, or resisting music cues that are laid on too thick. It’s a deftly directed piece that equals the intelligence of all three of the female characters on screen. Even some of the symbolism that figures heavily in Francis’ script, like the numerous visual references to water and the fine line between being rejuvenated and drowning, is given a light touch by Nighy and cinematographer Mike McLaughlin’s savvy lensing.
ALICE, DARLING is only showing in theaters, continuing an encouraging trend of smaller films opening at the Cineplex rather than starting from the get-go on streaming services. Significant issues like love, relationships, and friendship are worthy of such a showcase and this provocative thriller will give audiences some scares and thrills, as well as a lot to talk about in their own lives when the final credits have rolled.