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Some say all publicity is good publicity, but this generalized truth meets its match with the melodrama surrounding “Don’t Worry Darling,” including director Olivia Wilde’s romantic escapades with Harry Styles and alleged feud with the film’s star Florence Pugh. After a messy press junket in Venice (and rumors that Harry Styles spit on an unsuspecting Chris Pine), “Don’t Worry Darling” was sent to theaters in a spoiled environment of predisposed skepticism. The film is not as bad as the political pop culture aficionado wants to hear, but not without its major flaws. It effectively captures the frustrations of married life, the confines of femininity, and the fragility of masculinity, but fails to do so in a satisfying manner, lacking the subtlety of successful social commentary.
“Don’t Worry Darling” follows Alice (Florence Pugh) as she discovers that the community she is a part of is a fallacy. Her doting husband, Jack (Harry Styles), works for a mysterious corporation, the Victory Project, overseen by the sinister Frank (Chris Pine). The characters thrive under routine and traditional gender roles, until Alice notices unsettling occurrences that threaten the illusion of her perfect, happy life.
Swing dresses, leotards, lipstick — all the trappings of traditional femininity skirt the screen of “Don’t Worry Darling.” The female characters attend the same dance class, led by the intimidating and powerful Shelley, who is married to Frank (Gemma Chan). As they dance, a chant sounds: “There is beauty in control. There is grace in symmetry. We move as one.” Wilde skillfully organizes and frames bodies to mirror the restrictiveness of traditional femininity that supports only subordinate and beautiful women. Yet inherent in this exploration of femininity is the prominence of whiteness. The film centers on Alice, a white woman inspired to question her surroundings by the discoveries of Margaret (Kiki Layne), a Black woman who serves as a catalyst for Alice’s character development. “Don’t Worry Darling” is ultimately an exploration of white womanhood with a half-hearted attempt at inclusion, illustrating a “symmetrical” experience of femininity that is seemingly possible only between white women.
Olivia Wilde and screenwriter Katie Silberman teamed up again for “Don’t Worry Darling” after collaborating on the endearing coming-of-age comedy “Booksmart” (2019), though their partnership may be better suited for lighter comedy-driven films. The script relies too heavily on spoken exposition from the characters. With a story so dependent on the depiction of social hierarchies, these subtleties are often a result of body language and action rather than explicit discussion. The characters speak in platitudes and absolutes instead of letting the audience interpret the larger meaning of interactions. Perhaps Silberman’s open-face style of dialogue better suits the brazen naïvete of a teen comedy than a psychological thriller that doubles as social commentary.
The construction of an antiquated world in which to deliver the essential messages of the film was important for its efficacy, but the tone was inconsistent and distracting. However, the female characters seemed conscious of their skewed priorities and societal roles, as if in on the joke, making the darker themes of the film overly lighthearted. The performances of the supporting cast were too self-aware and ironic. This choice of tone was likely Wilde’s attempt at comedic absurdity. However, if the characters reflected more genuine self-seriousness, the film would have been grounded in their reality, rather than a forced, inauthentic lightness imposed upon their performances. Only Florence Pugh achieved a realistic performance that matched the imagined Victory Project. Her Alice genuinely believed in love, and that love was complicated by the strain of the community.
Of course, the film’s task was to dismantle the seemingly perfect Victory Project. But the illusion broke too quickly, with the guerilla-style camera-work seen in the opening sequence. The shaky framing emphasized an immediate instability between the main cohort of characters. Outside of the home, cinematographer Matthew Libatique created an unsettlingly perfect golden-hour look for the Victory Project. The cinematography imagined a warm-toned and lethargic West Coast; the soft light drapes the characters in halos, like harbingers of progress. As the film progresses, the lighting garners more contrast, a parallel to the darkening plot. Yet, the crescendo into darkness is interrupted by the intentionally unstable camera work present from the beginning of the film that emphasizes the fragility of the community. The film would have benefitted from a clearer visual arc that mirrored Alice’s character development.
The lack of an effective visual arc was perhaps a result of editing. The film’s plot is not entirely linear, as the rushed ending displays. Wilde intersperses random footage of dancers seen on black-and-white film at various moments, so that the viewer never settles into believing the claims of the Victory Project. Throughout the film, Alice also views herself in different reflective surfaces. This motif serves as a vehicle for self-actualization, as Alice searches for the strength to believe in herself. However, these visual metaphors appear too often. The shots seem repetitive; how often can someone look in the mirror and see something entirely different than the day before? The heavy-handed editing over-emphasizes a feeling of unease.
These technical faults aside, Olivia Wilde still facilitates a dramatic and emotional climax. The cruelty of Jack’s actions is visceral and upsetting, allowing the devastation of betrayal and the shattering of domestic happiness to ring true. The ending is breathless and energetic. It seems that Wilde, too, triumphed in the resolution. Despite the speculation about behind-the-scenes drama, she delivered a cohesive film with a thought-provoking ending. Ultimately, the pop culture jury was not sequestered, but art does not exist in a vacuum. Wilde’s directorial style seems unfit for “Don’t Worry Darling,” and only time will tell whether she will survive as an auteur in a ruthless industry that demands versatility.
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