There’s a moment in don’t worry darlingOlivia Wildes (book smart) second film as director, in which the simply-named Jack Chambers (pop singer-turned-actor Harry Styles) hops onto a stage with a backing band for a joyless dance at the behest of the oddly-named Frank (Chris Pine), the founder and CEO an isolated desert community inspired by the 1950s.
For Jack, dancing on stage serves to mark a coveted promotion. For Frank, it’s an opportunity to pull Jack’s puppet strings a little tighter and remind Jack that Frank retains the absolute right to ban Jack and his wife Alice (Florence Pugh) from their socially constructed utopia for real or perceived transgressions.
As Jack consciously, consciously, and consciously trades his freedom, integrity, and autonomy for the promise of a “better life,” a life defined by clear, inflexible gender roles (women function solely as housewives and mothers, men as husbands, fathers, and breadwinner), a consumerist, materialistic lifestyle, and unquestioning obedience to Frank’s mundane rules and messianic leadership, Alice, like the other women inhabiting the carefully tended, prefabricated city, has no choice, agency, or autonomy.
Like every woman in the remote town surrounded by desert and mountains, she has to follow the rules set out by Frank: she is not allowed to ask about Jack’s job at the so-called Victory Project, she is not allowed to leave town to visit Jack’s mysterious compound, in which he works on the “development of advanced materials” and cannot question anything about their supposedly idyllic coexistence.
Except, of course, Alice. She realizes early on that she is not in Wonderland. She’s not in Neverland, by the way. Jack’s love and affection comes at a price she’s less and less willing to pay: blind obedience. And when, after another resident, Margaret (KiKi Layne), suffers what appears to be a nervous breakdown, the same resident disappears permanently, Alice’s natural curiosity, not to mention concern for her deceased acquaintance, begins to overwhelm her.
Seeing an object in the sky that no one else sees is doing Alice a disservice and blindly pursuing it into the desert. Worse, it alerts Frank to Alice as another potentially troublesome obstacle to maintaining his version of utopia.
Wilde and her screenwriter Katie Silberman (book smart, Isn’t it romantic?, Sentence It on), working from an original story credited to Silberman, Carey Van Dyke, and Shane Van Dyke, relies on a plot-as-mystery-box structure to keep audiences guessing as to the true identity of the Victory Project, and presumably to be interested in the answer. Unfortunately, solving the mystery of who, what, when and where surrounding Alice’s strange imprisonment isn’t particularly novel, it alone leads to engaging at a fundamental, fundamental level.
As a matter of fact, don’t worry darling leans on an idea that was used, abused and exploited until it was rightfully disused, where it should have stayed for the next half century. When the revelations come – and they come all at once in a tedious, listless manner – the audience will already have all the answers figured out.
The shrugging result is no surprise, far from it. Neither Pugh’s undeniably compelling portrayal as a woman slowly losing her mind due to an epic gaslighting campaign, nor Pine as the charmingly reticent cult leader and Alice’s central antagonist.
Despite a periodically swaying accent and occasionally over-emphasized line readings, Styles delivers a believable performance without needing to grade the usual singer-to-actor curve, while the rest of the cast fill their often sketchy, signed-on roles with the expected level of professionalism.
That alone might not be enough to recommend it don’t worry darling But for at least the first hour, it’s easy for moviegoers to lose themselves in the carefully reconstructed mid-century homes set within a neatly organized, planned community and costume design that is both time- and site-specific as well as feels timeless.
Ultimately, however, all that eye candy isn’t enough to transport a disappointing, all-too-familiar story, superficial pro-feminist themes, or painfully predictable revelations once made that can’t lead to the end credits fast enough through the exit doors.
don’t worry darling Theatrical release in North America on Friday September 23 via Warner Bros. Visit the official website for more information.
don’t worry darling
- Katie Silberman
- Carey van Dyke
- Shane van Dyke
- Florence Pugh
- Olivia Wilde
- Chris Kiefer