Written by: Emerald Fennell
Starring: Carey Mulligan, Bo Burnham, Alison Brie, Clancy Brown, Jennifer Coolidge, Laverne Cox
Prevailing issues perpetuating rape culture in this nation and worldwide becomes difficult to address because it’s so ingrained in the way people are raised. It takes massive education efforts to try and deprogram people into realizing their harmful words and actions creating a cycle of pain for women and survivors. Education can be one approach or you can down the path of the protagonist of this brightly colored yet narratively dark venture into the depravity of men. An unforgettable experience and one ready to bring up plenty of conversation.
Having dropped out of medical school and working at a coffee shop, Cassie (Carey Mulligan) spends her weekend nights presenting herself as intoxicated in order to attract male predators and then thoroughly teaches them a lesson. With this warpath, she must once again reckon with the instigating issue that led to these actions as the main culprit has reemerged in her life.
Broaching such a difficult topic with the level of dark comedy and seriousness of Promising Young Woman, the film found itself having some very jarring tonal shifts narratively but everything this story has to offer comes with a searing level of purpose. Even with the bright and poppy colors Cassie occasionally likes to wear, nothing in this story gets sugarcoated for the characters and audience. This film comes at you quickly with the message it wants to convey and forces you to confront any way you may be perpetuating this cycle.
The film begins by dispelling the myth of the “nice guy.” The type of guy who says he’s an ally to women but would turn around and try to take advantage of them when given the opportunity. The whole opening scene brings a level of unease because it appears we’re on the verge of watching a traumatic event, but it outlines what Cassie wants to do and shows these men for the hypercritical animals they swear they would never be. It provides a moment for any guy to sit back and say “I totally would not do that, I’m a good guy” but this film cares not for any justification. Words are cheap and actions matter the most, which continually shows up with the different individuals propping up a culture where women do not get believed when harmed just to keep the status quo and not deter the futures of the predators. The way Cassie approaches this battle shows the wide range of its perpetuation but also provides some excellent catharsis.
Through the course of the story, Cassie decides to confront individuals involved with a previous incident that included a friend and how they contributed to a system willing to break the will of sexual assault survivors. This includes the dean of the university and lawyer among others and the conversations she has with them holds up a mirror in a thoroughly satisfying manner. As shown through the actions she’s willing to do in order to make her point, Cassie has no qualms about making these people feel horrible for their actions or inaction. At times her efforts may cross a line but I doubt she cares what anyone thinks considering she needs to prove a point, which can only be done in such an abrasive manner. These were individuals who failed the survivor Cassie stands up for and getting each of them to reckon with their actions carries a level of fulfillment I never knew I needed in life.
This does not even include what she does on the weekends where she directly shows how these men say all of the right things but when given the opportunity to have an intoxicated woman in their room, what they say becomes worthless. Promising Young Woman has no issue in displaying the pure unadulterated heinousness of these horrific men and further doing away with this idea of rapists being these individuals coming from out of the corner of an alley. No, they can also be the guys who believe themselves to be upstanding gentlemen, which therefore gets them incredibly aggravated when confronted with the reality of them being monsters and pathetic in justifying their behavior.
Thematically, as much as the story feels like a revenge plot, it also battles with the idea of grief in the eyes of Cassie and how she battles with the impact this system had on her friend. The film pieces together the background of Cassie’s relationship with her deceased friend, Nina, and how much what occurred has impacted the protagonist. This poignantly occurs with a conversation held between her and Nina’s mother (Molly Shannon) and it comes together as the story gets wilder and ultimately concludes. It comes with a level of poignancy getting right at the soul-sucking reality of this story. As much as anyone would like to play into the revenge fantasy elements, a level of sadness remains strongly present because the lengths Cassie has to go through in order to receive justice should make anyone melancholic. Going in any deeper would require spoilers, but the reality and the pain feels much more grounded than one would initially think with the hyper-stylized presentation, which only makes the overall story a real punch in the gut.
With a poignant and sharp story, Promising Young Woman also has such a dynamic style to it. From the production and costume design combining in a truly majestic manner to demonstrate the disguises Cassie puts on in front of others to the deliberate use of color in all scenes, everything works immaculately well in setting the stage for what this character is willing to do. It certainly demonstrates the fulfillment of a truly scintillating vision by debut director, Emerald Fennell. She comes in with a viciousness with this feature and holds absolutely nothing back in telling this story. From the choices in the soundtracks to accentuate each scene to the deliberate decisions in her camera movements, the intentionality on display deserves plenty of praise. It makes it hard to believe this stands as her feature directorial debut, as it comes with a level of audaciousness and confidence of a veteran. With this production, Fennell busts down the door and makes her presence known.
As a performer, Carey Mulligan never disappoints and the enthralling performance she gives in this feature provides a different light to the overflowing talent she possesses. She takes the incisive dialogue and direction provided by Fennell and makes this character someone not only to be admired but also venerated. Mulligan carries the different disguises Cassie puts on with incredible class and displays her profound versatility as a performer. She pairs well with all of the other supporting characters to create this fully formed figure to continually root for in this journey.
Completely its own thing while also taking on centuries-old ideas and cultural norms, Promising Young Woman feels like getting hit in the head with a bat and knowing we deserve it. The film holds none of its message or abrasiveness back. It proves to be fundamental viewing with the conversations it wants to have about rape culture and toxic masculinity, while also bringing forth a great fictional character. The conclusion will certainly cause plenty of divisiveness with how it wraps everything up but once again, Promising Young Woman lays out its message in such a decisive manner that it rings completely true.