More than two decades have passed since the deadly Columbine high school shooting that shocked the world. While these traumatic events continue to occur with increasing frequency and a whole generation of children have grown up in their wake, Hollywood has discovered a new setting for films dealing with lingering high school trauma. Every compassionate, nuanced film like “The Fallout” seems to be followed by something exploitative like “The Desperate Hour.”
Unfortunately, the most recent of these films, “Luckiest Girl Alive,” falls into the latter category. Based on Jessica Knoll’s book of the same name, for which she also serves as screenwriter, the film not only dramatises a school shooting in poor taste, but it also exploits rape trauma in the name of girl boss feminism in Luckiest Girl Alive.
With a tone reminiscent of “Gone Girl,” the film centres on the seemingly perfect life of Ani (Mila Kunis), a writer for The Woman’s Bible, a glossy women’s magazine. She’s written “1,500 stories about how to blow a blow job,” but all she really wants is to work at the New York Times Magazine and be “someone people can respect.” Ani is engaged to Luke (Finn Wittrock, given nothing to do), an old money scion who is more of a checkbox for Ani’s goal of unquestionable social legitimacy than anything else.
Luckiest Girl Alive Trailer
Her desire to be the most unrivaledly wealthy person dates back to her high school days. Ani (Chiara Aurelia), a scholarship student at an elite prep school in Philadelphia, is a survivor of the “deadliest private school shooting in U.S. history.” The fact that this shooting occurred in 1999 (the same year as Columbine) and the film’s revelation of who the perpetrators were is one of many incredibly tasteless decisions it makes, which is quite a distinction given that the entire thing is made up of tasteless decisions.
We learn from flashbacks and Ani’s narration (which is haphazardly deployed throughout as her cynical inner thoughts, an interview for a documentary, and the copy for a piece she writes during the film’s denouement) that one of the survivors, now a gun reform activist, claims that Ani was involved in the shooting—but that this same survivor was also one of three classmates who gang-raped Ani at a school dance after party just weeks before the Ani’s goal is to reach the top of the social ladder and then share her side of the story in order to win the he-said-she-said battle.
Despite the gruesome nature of the material and Mike Barker’s brutal blocking of the rape sequence, Aurelia does an excellent job of depicting Ani’s pain and resistance during the rape, confusion immediately afterwards, and later hesitation to report due to internalised shame. If only the older Ani-played Kunis were given as much leeway. Instead, her PTSD is displayed as hamfisted visions of blood, stabbing her fiance (whose elite social status constantly reminds her of her rapists), and her vitriolic inner thoughts.
Ani is also rightfully enraged at her mother Dina (Connie Britton) for actions revealed gradually through flashbacks. However, her rage is mostly directed at her mother’s lower social class. Ani’s wedding gown is from Saks Fifth Avenue (the one on Fifth Avenue! ), but she tells her wealthy friends that her mother shops at T.J. Maxx. Even the film makes fun of Dina as she tries to fit into the upper echelon world her daughter now inhabits, saddling her with comically high heels and lines about “Say Yes to the Dress” and poorly pronounced Italian.
Even as a teen, Ani’s mother’s financial situation, as well as her striver’s spirit, are always in the back of her mind. Dina’s reasoning for enrolling her daughter in a private school in the first place was to put her in the company of wealthy men. Dina blames Ani for breaking her alcohol rules when this plan leads to her assault. It’s clear that Ani learned as a child that privileged men can do whatever they want and get away with it, unless she levels the playing field. Where there could have been a class critique, there is instead an aspirational desire to be among the elites. As if only wealthy men are capable of inappropriate behaviour.
It’s also unclear what kind of writer Ani aspired to be before taking on the “skanky” beat at this women’s magazine, as her boss LoLo (Jennifer Beals) refers to it. Her ardent desire to have her writing published in an old institution like the New York Times stems from the same place as her desire to marry into an old family so that people know they don’t just “have money, they came from money.” Again, there is a missed opportunity to delve deeper into class and power dynamics, as well as gender dynamics in the media world.
After being absent for the majority of the film, Beals reappears and gives Ani a pep talk about “authenticity” and the importance of exposing everyone in her life who didn’t help her as a teen. This forces her to finally tell her story in her own words. Ordinarily, this would be a triumphant moment in a film, but it’s here that you realise “Luckiest Girl Alive” has exploited both school shootings and rape trauma for a self-actualization narrative that ultimately ends with Ani finding value in the shallow achievement of viral fame rather than the release of her repressed emotions through this writing.
Sure, Ani was a victim, but so were all the other children whose lives were lost in the shooting or were forever altered by the trauma of its aftermath. However, the film is so preoccupied with Ani’s trauma that it almost implies that the deaths of the other children were justified (it surely relishes in showing their deaths in barbaric detail). In the final scene, the traumas of rape victims and those affected by gun violence are pitted against each other for the nation’s attention and actionable change.