Trigger warning: This film discusses sexual assault and gun violence.
The thing about unlikeable characters is that they always put us at a crossroads once (or if) we’re given their backstories.
Do we excuse their questionable actions because they’ve suffered trauma, or do we allow said trauma to be justification for their cut-throat, lying, and confusing personalities?
Ani FaNelli from Jessica Knoll’s best-selling novel (now adapted into a Netflix original that popped onto my screen every time I opened the platform) led me to one such crossroads.
After I finally gave in to the inviting and persistent trailer, I strapped in for the story of a character most of us have met and some of us have even been, portrayed by Mila Kunis in Luckiest Girl Alive.
Cunning, judgemental, bitter and angered, Ani FaNelli is hellbent on navigating her way to perfection (and she’s gotten pretty close too). Her inner dialogue is brutal, her means are questionable (like seeing her soon-to-be husband as another checkbox on her perfect-life essentials list) and her rigid persona knits together a series of other personalities that she’s created as tools to carve out America’s ideal life.
Her ambition is more than simply being driven to liberate herself from being a sex advice editor; it’s a coping mechanism to be everything she deems valuable and worthy of having a backing.
Almost as fixated as Gatsby was on the greenlight in his tragic American Dream, FaNelli’s obsession with idealism is frustrating if anything initally. Her ‘I was once a Financial Aid kid and I’m still bitter’ mindset is one-dimensional and her outbursts of anger are stirring in the beginning of the film when we don’t have context – the same way it is in life whenwe judge others without context.
We’re not supposed to like Ani, but soon that dislike unfolds into guilt once her story unravels.
Ani is a victim (she doesn’t approve of the word survivor). As a younger more meek version of herself, she suffers being sexually overpowered by teenage boys who not only took advantage of her in graphic detail, but gaslighted her into wearing a scarlet letter.
This background ignites the ‘real tragedy’ – at least for those in her world who didn’t know or believe Ani’s story – seeing the plot thicken into a soup of collective trauma and a country’s continued violent trauma of gun violence.
With the background filled in, Ani becomes less of a character and more of a symbol. She is all the women who kept quiet about their sexual assault. All the women who were villainized for victim experiences, and all the women who did everything in their power to become stronger – even if it meant being disliked.
What the film made up for in character development (or rather the flashback-unpacking) it lacked in self-discovery.
We see Ani confront her trauma and even expand her career in a powerful process of catharsis. We see her do brave things, find her voice and shatter the glass ceiling with it. I caught myself saying ‘good for you’ more times than I could count when she acted with strengthened intentions, and especially when she reminded people that just because trauma isn’t shared or obsessed over on the news, it doesn’t mean it isn’t valid.
However, despite a satisfying conclusion, Ani’s emancipation from her past doesn’t give us the one thing that could’ve tied the story together aptly to fit the theme of vindication – we don’t and will never know if Ani has allowed herself to be who she is and not the character she’s created.
The film’s ending gets too caught up in the overarching message and the main character suffers because of it. We don’t know if her inner-dialogue becomes kinder, if she starts accepting who she is without all the armour or how she treats others now that she’s confronted those days that shaped her entire future.
As it is with any healing, it’s so much more about who one becomes rather than what one achieves.
Overall, the film offers a better gaze into American culture, power plays and elements of the #MeToo movement than it does on the woman whose story sets the telling.
Still, it’s worth the watch if you’re willing to accept the complications in exchange for an empowering shot at what ‘success’ or perfection disguised as trauma can actually look like.
Feature Image: Netflix