Netflixable? Kunis shows off her edge as “Luckiest Girl Alive”

“Luckiest Girl Alive” might be the best “Lifetime Original Movie” ever, certainly the best one of those Netflix has made.

Yes, that label is both descriptive — a film that has a female protagonist overcoming obstacles or some horrific event — and pejorative.

Lifetime Original Movies, even versions of them made for Netflix, are soapy and empowering and chatty. Rare is the genre outing that isn’t about a woman overcoming some monstrous thing a man or men in general have done to her.

Mila Kunis has her best dramatic role in years thanks to Jessica Knoll’s adaptation of her best-selling novel. And British TV director Mike Barker (“Broadchurch,” TV’s “Fargo”) manages an uneven film in which the trauma is palpable, the surprises deftly hidden and his star has the room to give a star turn.

Kunis plays New York glossy mag “trend” journalist Ani Fanelli, an editor-pleasing author of journalism “skanky” enough to “keep the lights on.”

Salacious listicles like “60 Handsfree Ways to Get Him Off” sell “The Women’s Bible,” and editor Lolo (Jennifer Beals, quite good) knows it. That’s why she’s trying to wrangle jobs for them both at the New York Times.

Ani is about to marry into money, and insists that the handsome Luke (Finn Wittrock) “knows all my secrets, and still loves me.” But Ani has a huge trauma in her past, something her interior monologues won’t let her forget. Registering for knives at a posh Manhattan cutlery emporium triggers her.

“Snap OUT of it, Psycho!” her inner voice tells her.

Whatever happened, happened at a prestigious private school in Pennsylvania. Whatever happened made national news. Whatever happened, Ani, who went by “Tiffani” back then, survived. And whatever happened, another survivor has built a publishing and activist career out of it, one in which he labeled Ani “complicit” in the crime.

Nearly two decades later, she may be six weeks from her dream marry-up wedding, which thrills her gauche “Real Housewives of PennyTucky” mother (Connie Britton, terrific) more than her. But all that ugliness is coming back into her life thanks to a persistent documentary filmmaker (Dalmar Abuzeid) who wants the “survivor who has never spoken out” to talk for his film. And even though he’s also talking to her chief tormenter, he’s full of assurances about not victimizing her again, “keeping her safe” in the film, which makes him either diabolically disingenuous, or laughably naive.

“Luckiest Girl Alive” is about all the juggling women must do — career, marriage, money — with trauma a whole new set of balls Ani must keep in the air as her interior monologues debate whether or not to do the documentary, whether or not to follow her husband-to-be to his new job in London and whether any of this will help her decide to confront the past.

“What’s the point of punching above your weight if you’re not fighting?”

Voice-over is generally a lazy screenwriter’s best friend, but mysteries and thrillers are the exception to that rule. Think of Kunis and Ani as a hard-boiled private eye telling the tragic story of her life in poetic, writerly turns of phrase. It can be cloying, as when Ani is giving herself instructions on how to act when asked a question.”You’re sad about that. Look sad!” But overall, it works here.

I like the way Knoll and director Barker keep the film’s secrets, waiting to show us what “really” happened, complicating Ani’s feelings, reactions and possible “culpability.” When we meet Ani/Tiffani in high school (Chiara Aurelia), we see the insecure child who dragged some of those insecurities deep into adulthood. And as we hear her teacher (Scoot McNairy) praise her dissection of the “unreliable narrator,” Holden Caulfield of “Catcher in the Rye,” in class, we’re allowed to wonder if adult Ani is one of those unreliable narrators as well.

The film’s melodramatic touches aren’t deal-breakers, as they generally entail big speeches — by Ani, her mother, her editor, and classmates in her youth. But even as those illuminate characters, they lay out the stakes in ways more obvious than one would like.

There’s a choppiness to the flashbacks that makes the causes and effects less cut and dried. Wait, this was done because of that?

“Luckiest Girl” has a whiff of “Gone Girl” ambition, even if the story is a lot more female-wish-fulfillment fantasy than thriller. But that’s an absolute must when you’re on the hunt for that Lifetime Original Movie audience, even in a movie made for Netflix.

Rating: R, graphic violence, profanity

Cast: Mila Kunis, Chiara Aurelia, Finn Wittrock, Connie Britton, Scoot McNairy, Dalmar Abuzeid, Justine Lupe, Alex Barone and Jennifer Beals.

Credits: Directed by Mike Barker, scripted by Jessica Knoll, based on her novel. A Netflix release.

Running time: 1:55

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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