A few minutes into “Alice, Darling,” audiences may be reminded of how 2020’s “The Invisible Man” opened: Anna Kendrick creeps out of bed at dawn, taking pains not to wake the partner we briefly assume she’s about to flee. But whereas that Elisabeth Moss vehicle was a monster movie given heft by its abusive-boyfriend backstory, director Mary Nighy’s feature debut puts a woman’s difficult exit from a dangerous relationship front and center. This is a quietly powerful drama about psychological manipulation and damage, receiving a year-end qualifying run at the AMC Sunset 5 in West Hollywood on Dec. 30 before expanding to AMC theaters nationwide on Jan. 20.
In an unnamed city, Alice (Kendrick) arrives late and departs early from an overdue night out with best friends Sophia (Wunmi Mosaku) and Tess (Kaniehtiio Horn). We can tell she’s distracted, even fearful, sneaking away to the bathroom to tear her hair out — a nervous tic that escalates as the film unfolds. When we first meet the boyfriend she’s hurried home to, he seems nice enough. But tiny “off” notes and disturbing mind’s-eye flashbacks soon reveal that successful artist Simon (Charlie Carrick) is a control freak whose tormenting self-doubt and other neuroses all get taken out on Alice. He’s undermined her confidence in every way, being simultaneously demanding and belittling, begrudging the smallest attention she grants anyone but himself.
Thus, when the three women orchestrate a lakeside vacation week to celebrate Tess’ 30th birthday, Alice can only get away by lying, telling Simon she’s on an obligatory work trip. Though not physically abusive, he has driven such a paranoid wedge between her and the rest of the world, she can now barely bring herself to participate in this desperately-needed escape with trusted friends. Instead, she self-isolates, defensively batting away their concerns, demonstrating ways in which her thinking has been warped (especially as regards food and body image) — meanwhile fending off his constant, needy text messages.
At about the halfway point here, Alice has an irrational outburst that reveals the extent to which she’s suppressed cumulative panic. Soon after, she begins confiding the ugly reality of her domestic situation. But even having her phone taken away by the well-meaning besties isn’t enough to keep Simon at bay.
Alanna Francis’ nuanced script threads in a subplot about a missing young woman in this rural area, suggesting elements of murder mystery we anticipate might lead into more genre-oriented territory. That actually proves a red herring; “Alice, Darling” may frustrate those expecting its denouement to be reached by more violent or melodramatic means than those the filmmakers devise.
But the focus here is not so much on the object of Alice’s terror as it is the emotional bedrock of friendships Simon has (naturally) done his best to distance her from, and which may yet prove her salvation. While the word “intervention” is never spoken, that is this movie’s de facto gist: how people who really love you will take the risk of telling you who is only pretending as much, to your evident harm. Breaking a destructive codependency is so hard, sometimes others must strike the first severing blow for you.
It’s a strong role for Kendrick, whose character may seem less than fully defined, but then that’s part of the point — Alice’s boyfriend has insidiously worn away any part of her personality that doesn’t prioritize him. Kaniehtiio Horn and Wunmi Mosaku are both very good as that rare screen thing, BFF figures with palpable inner lives of their own, rather than just being satellites to the protagonist. Carrick is careful not to make Simon a conspicuous monster. To the extent that we see him, he’s charming and attractive enough of the time that we understand how Alice got sucked by degrees into a relationship operating much like a slow-acting poison.
If the film could have used a stronger sense of catharsis at the end, it is nonetheless all to the good that Nighy and Francis exercise such judicious prior restraint. That keeps “Alice, Darling” from any sense of contrivance, the silent worry in Kendrick’s every gesture maintaining sufficient tension despite the lack of overt thriller devices. The thoughtful assembly is complemented in particular by Owen Pallett’s piano-based original score and Mike McLaughlin’s handsome but unshowy cinematography.