Directed by Mary Nighy (her feature film directorial debut) with an economical and smooth script by Alanna Francis, Alice, Darling is a lot of things. It’s an exploration of friendship, the pressure of societal expectations, and the overwhelming and unspoken power of platonic love. But chiefly, it is an intense dissection of domestic abuse and the many ways its ramifications manifest in its survivors. The Oscar and Tony-nominated Kendrick plays the darling Alice, a type A, hard-working, and very put-together woman who is only smiling on the outside. On the inside, she is harboring intense fear, uncertainty, panic, and shame from the toxic relationship she is in with Simon (Charlie Carrick), her verbally and psychologically abusive boyfriend.
The tension starts its slow simmer in the first scene when Alice goes for drinks with her ride-or-dies Tess (Kaniehtiio Horn) and Sophie (Wunmi Mosaku). This night out with friends is obviously meant to be an escape from everyone’s hectic lives, though we quickly learn that Alice can never truly escape her abusive relationship. On the ride over, she’s mindlessly wrapping her hair tightly around her finger until it turns a deep red, a habit that’s been both a comfort and a source of shame that intensifies along with her blood pressure. A character like Alice who is so mentally distant and preoccupied even when she’s physically present is a difficult one to pull off in a realistic, non-melodramatic way, but Kendrick manages to do so with ease. She turns on her smile and fun personality as soon as she enters the restaurant so as to not “burden” her friends with her brutal reality. Her reaction to the piercing sound of a text message alert from Simon is a subtle blend of fear and embarrassment. Alice’s body language and stillness speak volumes about what she is going through, and as the dynamics evolve and the environment and circumstances change, so does she.
Alice’s anxiety skyrockets when Tess and Sophie propose their plan for a remote getaway at Sophie’s cottage to celebrate Tess’s birthday. Her mind immediately starts to spin as she runs through possible excuses she can tell Simon, who will not be happy that she is leaving him for so long (or at all). The dysfunction of their relationship is on full display when the couple goes for a simple walk. On the surface, their dialogue and interactions are benign. Between the way the scene is shot and the way Kendrick and Carrick smartly approach it, it feels very much like it was pulled from the sweet spot of a rom-com when the couple is still lingering in the honeymoon phase. But in a matter of seconds, it becomes one of the most difficult scenes to digest. While Simon is picking up something in the pastry shop, Alice enters a trance-like state and rehearses with varying inflections the different ways she can casually broach the subject of her trip. This a small but devastating peek into her world that locks the tone in place.
While the entire film exudes authenticity, Alice’s relationship with Tess and Sophie is especially impressive. The film features one of the most authentic depictions of friendship, never leaning into tropes or sacrificing character distinctness for the sake of the plot. Sophie and Tess don’t fit into clichéd “friend” stereotype boxes, a testament to Alanna Francis’ ability to craft and convey a three-way dynamic that feels lived in and beat up, like your favorite pair of shoes that have been through it all. This makes them keenly aware of the tiniest change in each other’s behavior, a clear indicator of how well they know each other. Their conversations over drinks reference memories from their long history, naturally cementing their chemistry as friends and as actors. Sometimes, it’s simply Alice’s unsettled disposition that radiates off of her as she sits on the edge of the hot tub—purposely away from the fun—that can define the scene.
This film takes a lot of bold storytelling risks that pay off and complement each other in unexpected ways. What’s particularly interesting is how the most tension actually comes from Alice’s time with Tess and Sophie rather than Simon. It’s not necessarily that we are waiting for Simon to freak out (even though he is ever-present, he’s not as physically present on screen as one might assume), but we are waiting to see how Tess and Sophie react to Alice’s energy. For a significant portion of the film, the friends are in the dark about how bad (if at all) Alice’s relationship is, leading them to think that she isn’t into the trip because she’s grown apart from them. There are several times at the cottage when heaps of tension and suspense seep out, like when Sophie and Alice make cinnamon rolls and when Tess drags a reluctant Alice out to paddleboard. This makes any friction between Alice and her friends particularly saddening, as we the audience know the real reasons for her change in behavior. It’s clear that Alice not only can’t relax but doesn’t feel like she deserves to.
Visually, the film is stunning, in location and in style. The cutaway shots to the lived-in cottage and the way that Nighy isn’t afraid to take her time and observe the friends’ low-key bonding activities create a sense of familiarity and really capture the desired mood. As alluded to before, one-on-one interactions with Alice and Simon are used sparingly and strategically. Though this might feel strange at times, that’s kind of the point of the film, as it reminds people that the anxiety doesn’t disappear when she’s away from him. If anything, it gets worse. Horn and Mosaku’s characters, however, play inspiring and pivotal roles in Alice’s efforts to remember who she truly is.
Alice, Darling is a bold and powerful step forward in Anna Kendrick’s career that allows her to really show off the range we knew she had, but maybe hasn’t had a chance to fully explore yet. This intimate, tonally-challenging film feels like the perfect precursor to Kendrick’s upcoming directorial debut with the crime drama The Dating Game, in which she also stars. Alice, Darling is the type of film that will stick with you after the credits roll. And maybe inspire you to make your friend a sandwich.
Alice, Darling is now playing exclusively in AMC Theaters.