by Rob DiCristino
Some January movies belong in January because of their unique palate-cleansing qualities: A nice slice of 88-minute genre schlock goes down easier after the five-course behemoths of Prestige Season, something like Plane, last year’s The 355, or 2021’s The Marksman. They’re buffets of empty calories with very little to prove; the more brainless, in fact, the better. But then there are festival qualifiers like Alice, Darling, thoughtful indies that seem to have been orphaned in January because they never gained enough traction for awards consideration. They were crowded out. Abandoned. They’re eventually released quietly, with little support or expectation from their studios. Mainstream January releases occasionally hit, of course — your Takens, Cloverfields, and 27 Dresses…es — but most of these smaller offerings lay bleeding in ignominy until it’s time to make year-end “Also Ran” lists again. The well-intentioned debut of Mary Nighy (daughter of Bill), Alice, Darling is sure to be the first such casualty of 2023.
You can see where this is going. Alice, Darling paints a portrait of emotional abuse that will feel familiar to anyone who’s ever dipped their toes in the codependency pool or been gaslighted — a term now so pervasive that it’s lost all cogent meaning — by a partner. Alice presents all the telltale signs of psychological distress: She picks at her nails and yanks out her hair. She rocks in place and starves herself. Her friends protest in the usual way, with Sophie playing the mediator through Tess’ more aggressive confrontations. To its credit, though, Alanna Francis’ screenplay is careful not to portray Alice as naive or, worse, too feeble-minded to understand Simon’s influence. As any codependent can tell you, there is an element of Alice’s personality that invites manipulation, a need to be needed that almost thrives on it. This doesn’t make Simon’s narcissism any less damaging — nor does it make Alice more deserving of his mistreatment — but it does grant her a refreshing agency for this brand of melodrama.A Simple Favor, The Accountant, Pitch Perfect (geez, she does do this a lot, huh?); Let’s see...those Swanberg movies, Love Life. Oh! Dummy. (Did anyone else watch Dummy? On Quibi? It’s good!) Anyway, whereas those projects played up the cutesy goofball aloofness of it all, Kendrick brings a more subdued conflict to Alice, an inner panic that no amount of snarky asides could possibly deflect. There isn’t quite enough for Kendrick to do here — an undercooked subplot involving the search for a missing girl ultimately goes nowhere — but she’s right for the role in theory and fosters her reliably strong chemistry with her co-stars. While my beloved scrappy little nobody certainly knows how to take over a frame, Kendrick’s strength remains in her ability to defer to other actors in the scene, to play off their energies and adapt her own performance as theirs come into focus.
Alice, Darling opens nationwide on January 20th exclusively in AMC Theaters.