Film Review: “Alice, Darling” — Toxic Romance
By Peg Aloi
Alice, Darling is a potent reminder to women that they should trust their instincts — and rely on their friends.
Alice, Darling, directed by Mary Nighy. Screening at AMC Boston Common 19.
Anna Kendrick shines in this drama as a young woman who feels that she is trapped in a toxic relationship. In the opening scene, Alice (Kendrick) is swimming underwater in a lake, contemplating the sunlight hovering above the surface. It feels like a dream sequence, but also a bit menacing, and it foreshadows a lakeside getaway Alice is planning with two high school friends, Sophie (Lovecraft Country’s Wunmi Mosaku) and Tess (Kaniehtiio Horn). Alice seems like a typical young urban white woman, trying to balance career and a relationship. Still, she seems to be under a lot of stress and it’s hard, at first, to see why. Tess and Sophie tease Alice about getting worked up for no real reason. Her job isn’t all that demanding, they point out; the boss can spare her for a fun girls’ weekend away. But she remains extremely nervous, anxious; in private, she pulls her own hair out and experiences mini panic attacks throughout the day.
Alice makes up a white lie to tell her boyfriend Simon (Charlie Carrick), claiming she needs to go on a work trip. The implication is that if she told him what she was really doing — spending time with friends — he might have disapproved. Red Flag Number One! But, after a stressful last-minute conversation, she jumps in her car, radiating a palpable sense of relief at having gotten away with her ruse. Alice arrives at the weekend with her friends, and they unpack supplies in a cute little waterfront cottage. But almost immediately, Alice grows uneasy and decides she will need to cut her time with them short and get home. She claims it’s due to pressures from work (the second time she has lied to people close to her), but her friends see through this gambit.
The initial happy homecoming is now marred by tension. Tess and Sophie remind Alice of earlier times that she’s canceled plans for no good reason. Tess calls out Alice’s selfishness and Sophie tries to play peacemaker. They both complain about Simon’s tendency to commandeer her time, framing it, appropriately, as a grown man who is showing inappropriate neediness. Alice claims Simon is sweet and supportive, but her friends exchange knowing looks. After some mild guilt-tripping and, perhaps, feeling safe in their presence, Alice decides to stay put. Tess and Sophie cut her some slack and Alice begins to enjoy herself, relaxing her usual rigorous dietary standards which, apparently, Simon encourages.
As the weekend progresses, a few flashback scenes depict Alice’s relationship with Simon: moments of tenderness, passion, and strain. He’s charming one minute, angry the next. There’s no physical violence in the mix, but there’s an uneasy sense that things could turn that way quickly. Petite Alice would be no match for Simon’s strength. Anyone who’s aware of the isolating, dominating manipulations of a narcissist can recognize the film’s clues easily. What’s intriguing is that the story’s focus is not on Simon’s behavior, but on how it negatively affects Alice. On some level, this mirrors the reality of such relationships: abusers are adept at covering their tracks, skillful at gaslighting their victims. Of course, Alice doesn’t see herself as a victim: she thinks she’s lucky to have a handsome, confident guy like Simon interested in her. She tells her friends he would leave her if he knew what she was really like. She doesn’t understand that it is her insecurity that strengthens Simon’s unhealthy hold on her.
The next morning Alice sees a flyer posted at the local store and decides to get involved in a search for a missing woman. Tess and Sophie join her. It’s a bit of a red herring. The search yields nothing and doesn’t seem to have much relevance to the plot, beyond making the metaphoric point that Alice is a young woman who is “missing” from her own life. Or perhaps it’s a subtle harbinger of things to come: women in toxic relationships sometimes end up as the victims of domestic violence. Alice wants to help the search for the missing woman but she shows little curiosity about who she is hunting for: it is almost as if the search is a distraction. Sophie and Tess are wary, but eventually join Alice in a gesture of knee-jerk solidarity. Matters become complicated when Simon’s abnormal control of Alice’s life intrudes upon their idyllic getaway. Alice once again lets his charismatic cajoling convince her to reject her friends. But they’re not having it, and the pair’s show of solidarity is impressive, with Sophie in particular serving as a powerful barrier to Simon’s deceitfulness. Wunmi Mosaku has been terrific in every role in her career so far, even this one, which limits her to being “the supportive badass friend.”
It is, indeed, the performances that hold Alice, Darling together. Kendrick eschews her usual persona of sharp wit and humor here, giving us a young woman whose attempts to stay strong are at odds with her desire to be loved. In her feature debut, filmmaker Mary Nighy directs a fairly solid script by Alanna Francis with a sure hand. Occasionally, the plot elements feel somewhat heavy-handed, the dialogue lapsing into the expository. The look and pacing of the film are satisfyingly naturalistic; there’s a sense of ease and comfort in the cottage scenes among the three friends. The vibe turns haunted and tense in the scenes with Simon. Thankfully, there’s no spooky score or jump scares: just an escalating feeling of danger that may be vague but not unreasonable. And that note of the prosaic is welcome. So many films about abusive relationships devolve into outrageous exercises in horror, when mundane reality is terrifying enough. Alice, Darling is a potent reminder to women that they should trust their instincts — and rely on their friends.
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for the Boston Phoenix and member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. She taught film studies in Boston for over a decade. She writes on film, TV, and culture for web publications like Time, Vice, Polygon, Bustle, Mic, Orlando Weekly, and Bloody Disgusting. Her blog “The Witching Hour” can be found on substack.