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Movie Review: ‘Alice, Darling’ shines rare light on emotionally abusive relationship

Anna Kendrick stars in “Alice, Darling.” (Lionsgate/TNS)
Anna Kendrick stars in “Alice, Darling.” (Lionsgate/TNS)

The comma makes all the difference in the title “Alice, Darling.” It’s not an endearment, but rather, depending on what’s next, could be a request, a behest, an entreaty, perhaps even a demand, an order or a backhanded compliment. The title’s grammatical structure is a clever bit of wordplay to signify the ways in which words can have different meanings and different results, depending on how they’re used. This is especially apt for this indie drama in which Anna Kendrick plays a woman reckoning with an emotionally and verbally abusive intimate relationship.

Alice (Kendrick) has a few tics that we’re introduced to right away. She twists her hair around her fingertip until it’s tight, she pulls at the ends of her long brown hair, ripping it from the scalp, rolling it into balls. Yet she still curls her shredded locks into bouncy waves every morning, applying liquid eyeliner like it’s armor.

It is a kind of armor, a mask that she believes will protect her from the sidelong barbs that her boyfriend Simon (Charlie Carrick) tosses her way. Simon is older, he is ambitious (an artist) and nothing seems to be to his satisfaction, not the attendance at his gallery opening, or the steady stream of attention he demands from Alice, who is trying so hard to be “good” (as she says) that she constantly looks like a deer in headlights.

But Simon is also charming, and handsome, every criticism is layered with a compliment, demand couched in a declaration of love, and Alice’s internal monologue has been replaced with his voice. He doesn’t physically harm her, but he has climbed inside her head and taken up residence, destroying her from the inside out and making her think it was all her idea in the first place.

Screenwriter Alanna Francis bravely dives into this dangerous dynamic and teases it apart; Mary Nighy, the director, visualizes it, peppering the screen with momentary pops of flashback, Simon intruding on Alice’s consciousness even when he’s not around. Kendrick embodies it, swinging from dead-eyed dissociation to panic as Alice’s carefully controlled exterior cracks while on a vacation with her two best friends.

Alice’s perfect hair and morning jogs and self-help podcasts and sugar scolding aren’t fooling the two people who know her best, Sophie (Wunmi Mosaku) and Tess (Kaniehtiio Horn). Having escaped to Sophie’s parent’s lake house to celebrate Tess’ birthday, the tension is high, as Simon’s presence looms large in the form of Alice’s cellphone and hair-trigger anxiety. Straining under the pressure of keeping up appearances, Alice shatters, only to find her old self emerging from the wreckage. But then, Simon’s presence on this girls’ trip goes from theoretical to literal.

A local missing young woman in the area lends the story a frisson of menace, a portent of doom that looms over Alice. Though it threatens to slip into chaos, “Alice, Darling” remains coolly controlled, never breaking from its slick, high-brow indie aesthetic — desaturated palette, handheld camera, lo-fi electro pop, too much slow motion. It’s an efficient 90 minutes, and there’s no fat on Francis’ screenplay, somewhat to its detriment. Every single line has some meaning or significance to Alice’s experience. There’s no subtext, all meaning resting on the surface, including the nostalgic favorite song the girls sing together, “Stay” by Lisa Loeb, with lyrics describing a breakup conversation and a manipulative partner.

In execution, “Alice, Darling” is a bit obvious and mannered, but it’s so rare to see these kinds of abusive relationships, the kind that leave mental scars, not physical ones, depicted on screen with such a searing sense of authenticity that it eclipses the faults of the screenplay. Kendrick shines in this understated role, while Nighy, directing her first feature film, demonstrates a strong sense for style, tone and tension. “Alice, Darling” doesn’t need violence to prove the very real terror and damage caused by emotional abuse, and the conversation it starts is a vitally important one.

‘Alice, Darling’

2.5 stars (out of 4)

Rated: R (for language and some sexual content)

Running time: 1:30

How to watch: In theaters Friday