At one point in Mary Nighy’s assured feature film directing debut Alice, Darling, Anna Kendrick’s distraught and defeated titular character says meekly to the two friends she’s on a weekend getaway with, “It’s not like he’s hurting me.” It’s clear she doesn’t believe a word of it, and neither do we. She’s talking about Simon (Charlie Carrick), her long-time boyfriend who is not only not nice to her at all, but a textbook emotional abuser, manipulating Alice through fear, shame, unrealistic expectations and a general, pervading creepiness. Written by Alanna Francis (The Rest of Us), Alice, Darling is a boldly unsettling story of the type of relationship that can leave lasting, deep scars, invisible as they may be, and a kind of disturbing relationship drama rarely seen (or executed so well) on screen.
At just 90 minutes long—a rarity in an era of overstuffed, overlong films clocking in at well over two hours—filmmaker Nighy (daughter of Bill; previously an actor and a filmmaker with several short films and television episodes to her name) wastes no time in steeping us in Alice’s seemingly picture-perfect New York City life. She’s got a great job, great friends and, from the looks of it, a great, gorgeous boyfriend with a sexy-as-hell British accent. But all is not well with Alice and Simon, and everyone seems to know it, even if Alice isn’t ready to admit it. When we meet her, she’s at dinner with friends Tess (Kaniehtiio Horn) and Sophie (Wunmi Mosaku), celebrating a birthday and their collective independence to live the lives they’ve always dreamed of. Sophie reminds them both about the weekend away they’d planned to her parent’s vacation home on the water, and though Tess is enthusiastically on board, Alice hems and haws and deflects their pleas to commit to the trip. It’s the first glimpse that we get that all is not well in Alice’s world.
Back at home, every interaction with Simon is a tightrope walk, Alice unsure of what will set him off or give him some made-up reason to belittle or scold her. On a weekend morning walk for coffee, she innocently reminds him they’re trying to stay off sugar when he suggests stopping for pastries; his reaction isn’t harsh, per se, but it’s not pleasant, and Alice shrinks in its wake. But something must spark in her, because soon she’s packing a bag and telling Simon that she’s got to head out of town for a few days on a work trip, a lie she feels compelled to tell knowing all too well that he won’t accept the real reason: to spend three days away from him enjoying herself with friends. But that’s what she does, joining Tess and Sophie at the lake house and doing her best to set aside the trauma and pain in her romantic relationship for the sake of her friendships. She is, to put it plainly, not successful.
As striking as the scenes with Simon are, the moments Alice shares with these two close friends are just as powerful; these women clearly know each other intimately, and can sense in a moment when something is off. From the way Alice talks about her time with Simon to the growing distance between the friends, it all soon comes to a breaking point when Tess in particular can’t keep her opinions about Alice’s relationship to herself any more. The film depicts contemporary female friendship with a haunting accuracy in all its complicated emotions. Knowing each other as well as they do, they can adopt the sort of shorthand any set of good friends knows well, jumping through shared histories and patterns to call each other out on their bullshit. And eventually, to everyone’s relief (including ours), this is exactly what happens for Alice.
Since her role as a bright-eyed, well-meaning corporate lackey schooled by George Clooney in 2009’s Up in the Air, Kendrick has delivered solid, often comedic performances whenever she’s on screen. In Alice, Darling, she flexes entirely different muscles to devastating, remarkable effect, delivering a performance with a depth informed by trauma both real and imagined. Watching the anxiety and stress manifest on her face and in her habits (a hair-pulling fixation is particularly heartbreaking), it’s impossible not to understand just what Alice is going through, a form of abuse that’s left this woman as a shell of her former self. By the film’s powerful final scenes, again putting the intensity of female friendship on proud and commanding display, one might have the urge to sit up on the edge of their seat to root for Alice as she attempts to take her first tentative steps toward a life outside of Simon’s grasp. Where his abuse is camouflaged in what’s ultimately a toxic type of affection, the success of Alice, Darling is on full display in a finely crafted script, tension-building direction and Kendrick’s unforgettable performance.
Alice, Darling opens in select theaters in Chicago starting Friday.