Written by Anna Harrison
Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman shows a lot of guts for a debut feature. As it should, to be nominated for so many awards. A play on the “promising young man” that a judge dubbed Stanford rapist Brock Turner, Promising Young Woman shows the flipside of that judge’s words, focusing on the victim’s upended world rather than the perpetrator’s. Well, sort of.
The film opens with an apparently very intoxicated Cassie (Carey Mulligan) attempting to maintain consciousness at a bar. A young businessman named Jerry (Adam Brody), under the guise of getting Cassie home safely, takes her to his place and quickly takes things to the bedroom, despite him being a “nice guy” (aren’t they always) and her nearly slipping into unconsciousness. And then, in a flash, Cassie sits up, revealing her sobriety and scaring the bejesus out of Jerry.
This is how Cassie spends her free time: luring the “nice guys” to attempt to take advantage of her before shocking them into self-reflection. (Are we supposed to buy that these guys like Jerry get so spooked they never attempt anything bad again?) An admirable goal, though it strains the imagination to believe nothing unsavory ever happens to Cassie after her revelations.
Cassie, we learn, dropped out of med school years ago after an unspecified incident happened to her best friend, Nina—though it doesn’t take much head scratching to figure out what transpired even before the whole tale is unspooled. Cassie lives with her parents and works at a coffee shop, where Gail (Laverne Cox, delightful), her token black friend (now “updated” to be trans to pretend that the movie is hyper woke and inclusive despite Cox being one of two named characters of color in the entire film), encourages her to get out and live her life.
The titular “promising young woman” could refer to both Nina and Cassie, the former implied to have committed suicide and the latter now letting her life fall by the wayside while obsessively seeking revenge on behalf of Nina, who never appears on screen and remains a phantom, brought to life only by her mother’s grief, played devastatingly by Molly Shannon, and Cassie’s anger. On the one hand, the choice to leave Nina as a ghost in Cassie’s mind gives us a harrowing glimpse into how her trauma affected those closest to her as they struggle in the wake of her death; on the other, does this not play into the very thing the film tries to warn against—the way the victims are so often left by the wayside in favor of espousing how tragic it is a young man’s life will be ruined because of one stupid decision? It’s a thorny dilemma, one with no clear cut answers, but Promising Young Woman’s solution to this issue left me uncomfortable at times, though I suppose you could argue that that is the point.
The film takes a turn when Cassie reconnects with Ryan (Bo Burnham, charming as usual) and, very slowly, they begin a relationship. The cotton candy palette of the film changes from unnerving when contrasted to Cassie’s grief to appropriate when she falls in love. Then, of course, Cassie backslides upon revelation that the main perpetrator of Nina’s assault is getting married soon, and the bright colors once again turn sinister. (There is also an excellent string cover of Britney Spears. It bops.)
Promising Young Woman is a difficult film to parse. It takes big swings, and sometimes misses; I greatly admire Emerald Fennell for taking those swings on her first film, but the delicate subject matter means that the misses hurt more than they would otherwise: for example, the film displays the brokenness of the justice system, then relies on said system to give comeuppance to rapists. How can we feel good about that? The myriad tonal shifts are purposeful, though some of them feel a bit too abrupt—but Cassie’s trauma doesn’t allow her for graceful changes, and I applaud Fennell for crafting a female character that is allowed to come off as unlikable at times. It’s a film where I can justify most of the ideas, but I don’t necessarily enjoy them, most especially the controversial ending. Still, the movie sticks with you, due in no small part to the eye-catching aesthetics and Carey Mulligan’s ever-superb performance.
Yet, for all the ways this film was memorable, I wish it had said something a bit more profound. At the end of the day, I was left with little more nuance than your average Twitter thread; it is the images and performances that will stick with me, not the words. The film relies too much on staid ideas and “gotcha” moments, offering only slightly more than your average revenge fantasy. For all that Promising Young Woman tries to be subversive and radical, it treads little new ground in the script, making it all the more frustrating because the film shows so much potential and—dare I say—promise.