★★★★☆

The opening moments of Alice, the debut feature from writer-director Josephine Mackerras, are pure domestic bliss. A twentysomething married couple, Alice (Emilie Piponnier) and François (Martin Swabey), playfully fight in their pristine kitchen, attend a high-brow dinner party and rush through breakfast with their young son in a sequence that wouldn’t feel out of place in an Ikea advert.

The facade slips slightly as we see François knocking back a large measure of Jack Daniels before 8 o’clock in the morning. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s from this point onwards that any sense of domestic normality in Alice is shattered beyond recognition. In a single day, Alice discovers her bank account has been drained, she’s facing eviction and her husband is nowhere to be found. A situation which is only worsened by the realisation that their financial issues are caused by his addiction to high-end escorts.

This is when Mackerras’ film reaches a crossroad. After going along to a casting call to investigate the escort agency, Alice is unwittingly offered a job and begins to realise that becoming an escort herself could be a way out of her dire financial situation.

Given this set-up, there immediately becomes two well-established possible directions – either the film descends into gritty ‘70s look at the seedy underside of prostitution in the style of Midnight Cowboy and Klute or it transforms into a more ‘90s kind of atypical romance where a working girl is ‘rescued’ by a well-meaning client in the style of True Romance and, of course, Pretty Woman.

Refreshingly, Mackerras eschews both to produce a nuanced and altogether more authentic look at escorting. In particular, Mackerras’ decision to limit the amount of nudity and reserve sex scenes for character development rather than titillation provides the perfect window into the often unseen awkward and clinical side of sex work.

Alice also succeeds in feeling subversive thanks to its resolute refusal to allow Alice to be defined by her decision to become an escort. Whilst this is primarily achieved by the bold and quick-witted dialogue from Mackerras’ script, Piponnier is also due a great deal of credit for her tremendous performance as the film’s central character. During the film, she effortlessly transitions between every single emotion from crushing heartbreak to sheer joy and perfectly captures Alice’s balance of personal vulnerability and sense of duty as a mother.

Towards the end of the film, Alice does switch focus slightly towards a more family-based drama and explores the wider ramifications of Alice’s decisions. However, despite this, it maintains a sense of independence from the larger ethical debate around the subject. Keeping the focus on Alice and how, for better or worse, she took control of her own sexuality to provide for her son.

There is no doubt that Alice is an empowering watch. It skilfully combines narrative realism with compelling character development and whip-smart dialogue to produce an engrossing look into a subject matter that is all too frequently over-sexed and sensationalised.

Josh Sandy | @JoshSandy