The day after the tickets for Don’t Worry Darling: The IMAX® Live Experience went on sale, I realized I should probably attend, in case the promised attached Q&A with its director Olivia Wilde and various cast members (though not Florence “Miss Flo” Pugh) managed to escalate the drama that has swirled around this movie since its production and well into its promotion. I found two remaining seats in all of New York, not 24 hours after the release of the tickets, both at the Regal UA Sheepshead Bay theater in South Brooklyn. “What do Sheepshead Bay residents care about festival drama?” I thought as I quickly snapped up the second-to-last available seat.
Well, they may or may not have cared about festival drama, but attendees of Monday’s screening definitely cared about Harry Styles. I’d guess something like 97 percent of the filled theater contained Gen Z Styles fans, most of them female-presenting and around the ages of 12 to 14. If I didn’t see the sea of shirts emblazoned with Styles’ image on them in the crowd, I would have known I was surrounded by Stylers just from the very loud reactions that most of his on-screen appearances and utterances elicited. Very early, it was very clear that crowd was very much there for him.
We were promised an experience, and an experience was what we got. The event was to begin at 7:30, and a few minutes after, that the Warner Bros title card showed only for the image to disappear from the screen within seconds. That started among the most disorienting 20 minutes I’ve ever spent in a movie theater. The movie would start playing again, a few second later, the sound would cut out, and then the image would disappear. This happened what felt like dozens of times. The scene snippets seemed to be shuffled—we’d see a bit of one here, a bit of another there, a bit of the first one again, etc. Sometimes stills flashed: Pugh holding up an empty cracked egg, Pugh apparently running from something in the desert while looking fearfully behind. It was as though the projector was throwing a tantrum. The overall effect was like watching a half-formed memory of a movie that I hadn’t brought myself to care about.
“Are you shitting my dick?” called out one audience member a few minutes into this discombobulating montage.
“They’re edging us!” shouted another.
Whenever a snatch of Styles would show up, there was a chorus of screams so precise in their shrillness as to be reminiscent of the way Francesca and her friends screamed over Juna in The Comeback. The place-holder image with the information for the event was the alternate poster, seen here, of Pugh and Styles on the verge of kissing, while he sits in a convertible and she leans in from outside of it. Despite this picture being taken from the back and showing not even Styles’ full profile, one of the members of the audience called out “Look at him, he’s so handsome!”
“Nick Kroll!” yelled someone when a still featuring Kroll flashed on the screen. I wondered if that person knew Kroll solely from the kiss he shared with Styles during the Venice screening. I wondered if that person was jealous or maybe just a big fan of Kroll Show.
After about 20 minutes of rapid cinematic cycling, the screen abruptly shifted to the Q&A, which was already underway and being simulcast from New York City’s AMC Lincoln Square IMAX Theatre. Styles was posed a question about whether he saw the movie’s big twist coming the first time he read the movie’s script, and people screamed in response. He did not see the twist coming! He also reported that prior to filming, he liked the movie’s mood board and that he’s a “big fan of mood boards.” All he needed to do to have the Sheepshead Bay audience in stitches was say, “Um.”
Pugh and Chris Pine did not attend the Q&A, on account of other projects they’re currently working on (Pugh’s filming of the Dune sequel reportedly kept her from attending the Venice press conference, though many read her absence as shade for a movie that she has barely concealed her contempt for in recent months), but they did send brief satellite messages essentially telling people to enjoy the movie.
Then, hilariously, a small man who worked at the theater stood in front of the big (though by no means true IMAX®-sized) screen and screamed at us. He was the kind of mad that mean leprechauns get, though if I had to guess I’d say he was Italian. Imagining smoke coming out of his nostrils will complete the image. “Let me have everybody’s attention! Do not film the movie or anything, ‘cause if you do and we catch you, we will have you arrested,” he huffed. The crowd laughed. “‘Cause it’s against any type of anything…It’s against the policy,” he continued, his rage intensifying. “It’s not a joke! So do not film anything!” By then the crowd was as in stitches as it was when Styles said, “Um.” “And no smart answers!” he said, practically wheezing. “I’m not—” and then he was cut off by the pre-show welcome on screen: “LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, REGAL ENTERTAINMENT GROUP IS PROUD TO WELCOME YOU TO THIS REGAL IMAX THEATER.”
That was definitely the funniest thing that happened all night, though much of the movie, and specifically the crowd’s reaction to it, was plenty amusing. Wilde’s movie has received mostly negative reviews thus far (it currently holds a 35 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes), but what hasn’t been conveyed widely is just how fun the movie can be with a crowd that is game for a good time. I don’t think Darling is great cinema, but it is a beyond serviceable popcorn movie with a very strong aesthetic sense (it’s set in what appears to be the ‘50s, and Kroll during the Q&A specifically mentioned the Rat Pack as the reference that Wilde gave him). Employing the domestic thriller convention of gaslighting its protagonist (as seen in The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, The Good Son, Orphan, Single White Female, etc.), it effectively solicits frustration and tension via the plight of Pugh’s character, Alice, specifically her mental state. Early on, Alice realizes that the picture-perfect life she and the other residents of her idyllic suburban cul-de-sac inhabit may not be all it’s cracked up to be. The men work in the “development of progressive materials” at the mysterious Victory Project, which requires a ride across an unpaved desert to reach. The women, meanwhile, are expected to be servile, take ballet classes, and ask no questions. They don’t seem to be able to see the patriarchy for the trees, but soon enough Alice does and thus begins her red-pilling.
Themes of bodily autonomy, the subjective nature of reality to a certain segment of the population, and the process of “awokening” to the power structures that comfort can render invisible are obvious, but not out of line with contemporary progressive concerns. Don’t Worry Darling doesn’t have much to add to these notions, but like many horror movies of the past that have signaled societal tensions, it’s content to effectively hold up a fancy mirror. The movie’s open reminiscence is particularly pointed in its cinematic references, which are at times overt (Alice sees tightly choreographed Busby Berkeley-esque dance numbers playing in her head and participates in similar ones with the local women), but otherwise recall the plots of the likes of The Stepford Wives, Logan’s Run, and The Village. Wilde invokes the domestic-routine-as-misery montages of Michael Haneke’s The Seventh Continent, and I saw shades of Russ Meyer’s Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! in the climactic car chase (yes, this movie has one of those!) that takes place in the desert. If you’re going to be derivative, you should at least have good taste, and Wilde does.
Katie Silberman’s broad script and the way it plays out on screen leaves lots of space, it turns out, for response—I don’t think this is intentional, but Don’t Worry Darling has a camp-friendly sort of pacing. The audience I was in took virtually every opportunity to fill those spaces, mostly in reaction to most everything Styles did on screen. They frequently sighed. “You know what I do, Alice. I’m a technical engineer,” says his character Jack, to his wife. Sigh. “You know we can’t talk about this.” Sigh. “It’s classified, we’re not even allowed to discuss our jobs with other departments, you know that.” Sigh. That scene of counterfeit exposition turns tense, leading Jack to shout, “Stop it!” The audience giggled. “I’m part of something important Alice. This mission what Frank’s doing. It matters!” continues Jack. The audience laughed harder. Another scene in which Jack proposes having a baby with Alice had the crowd positively squealing.
The times of Jack’s most pronounced despair—and Styles’ overacting—elicited the most pronounced laughter. The crowd seemed to have a very good sense of humor about their dude, which was refreshing. Yes, it was all in admiration—maybe even worship—but so often fandoms, at least as they conduct themselves online, seem to be utter humorless about their patron saints; they seem to need to believe their heroes are perfect. None of them are, though. This crowd seemed to embrace Style’s shortcomings out of endearment, which historically, was always part of the fun of admiring a pop star in my experience. These kids really got it.
Plus, the vocal nature of the crowd made the screening a true New York moviegoing experience. With all due respect to the Alamo Drafthouse, a theater I frequent, its insistence on silence gentrifies seeing movies in New York, whose crowds for decades have actively and loudly responded to what’s happening on the screen. None of the Stylers did anything overly disrespectful or distracting, but I was happy to see such young people uphold the tradition of making their feelings known and, ultimately, communal.
Don’t Worry Darling strikes me as, above all else, a great vehicle for a pop star. There’s enough to chew on, it’s kind of dumb, and the broadness of the entire production means that the fun is there for the taking. Outside the theater after the show, I heard a young girl talking about the movie on her phone. “It was so good. So. Good. No it was. It was. It really really was,” she said. A few minutes later: “It’s my new favorite movie.” A few after that: “I’m in love with this movie.” I can’t quite say her enthusiasm is contagious, but by that point I totally understood where she was coming from.