Summary: Amir (Asad Farooqui) is a struggling actor, meddling with lowly, wordless terrorist roles. More importantly, he struggles with his parents not taking his career choice seriously. Amidst the party chaos highlighted by politics, cricket, and community gossip, a revelation brings Amir a new challenge—just making it through the day.
So often, stories about transgender individuals in media are riddled with gloom and doom, ending in tragedy; so often, too, these individuals are played by cisgender actors gunning for that Oscar glory. Landlocked eschews these conventions, opting out of overwrought drama and into something gentler and far more affecting.
Of course, this doesn’t mean there is no drama at all—quite the opposite. Landlocked opens with Nick (Dustin Gooch) attending his mother’s funeral, and it’s clear he’s fraying as he grapples with the death of his mother and the numerous roadblocks hindering his restaurant opening. His personal life spins into even more disarray after he—with his wife Abby’s (Ashlee Heath) encouragement—phones his father, whom Nick has not seen or spoken to since age 13, to tell of his mother’s passing.
His father, we learn, is a transgender woman named Briana, played by trans actor Delia Kropp, who also serves as executive producer. Director, writer, and producer Timothy Hall performs a tricky balancing act here: Briana’s transition clearly affected her relationship with Nick’s mother, and changes her relationship to Nick, but while the story does not shy away from Briana’s gender identity, it is not about her trans-ness. It’s a story of a parent coming to terms with the effect their absence had on their child, and of the child coming to terms with his abandonment, each having the scales fall from their eyes over the course of the film. Nick wants to hate Briana, and Briana wants to be involved in Nick’s life with no baggage; slowly, they make their way to a middle ground.
Gooch and Heath give excellent, natural performances. There are no Oscar-bait speeches here, but this turns out to be a good thing, making Nick and Briana’s relationship almost tangibly real. They discuss the beach, bridges, cooking, the church—interestingly, Briana has a very strong faith, a refreshing change of pace from many stories where the church and the LGBTQ community are portrayed as being at odds. There are no scenes of passersby hurling slurs, or pastors preaching about going to hell. Briana’s life is not the tragedy that some would play it as; she has a stable life with strong community ties, and has come to terms with her identity long ago. This makes her a much more compelling character: instead of a walking tragedy, she is a living, breathing person. (Unfortunately, the car ride where Nick and Briana talk about their faith is marred somewhat by poor sound design, the sound of the car alternatingly muffled or overly loud and the actors’ voices too quiet, though to be fair that could have been a computer issue.)
Landlocked is a pleasant film, deftly avoiding the standard tropes and traps that populate this kind of storyline. It’s not perfect, most noticeably with regards to the audio, and Hall also sidelines Abby, using her primarily as a mouthpiece to get Nick to answer questions we audience members might be wondering. But, Landlocked remains fully worth the watch, offering a needed sense of optimism and demonstrating the importance of LGBTQ stories that don’t focus on the tragedy, only the humanity.
Landlocked is currently playing at the 2021 Atlanta Film Festival until May 2. You can buy a ticket to a virtual screening here.
Rideshare, written and directed by Charlene Fisk, takes an everyday situation—getting into a rideshare after a night out—and injects an unsettling layer of claustrophobia. Gina (Brittany Wilkerson) is tired, and not really in the mood to talk to driver Mark (Josh Daugherty), but she makes small talk anyway. Already Gina is stuck in a hellish scenario, forced to chitchat with just one other person while wanting nothing more than to leave. We’ve all been there.
But we have not all been in an experience as gendered as this one. The minute Gina climbs into the car with a male driver, the balance of power shifts, and we become more and more aware of this as the film continues. Mark asks Gina questions, which she responds to; he fails to pick up on the fact that Gina would like to be quiet and continues to talk, his questions getting more and more personal. Fisk takes care through most of the film to never let Mark drift into caricature, instead giving him enough plausible deniability to where he could reasonably say he meant Gina no ill will and was just making conversation, a defense that seems to come up very often in these types of scenarios and one that immediately deflects blame on the woman for being too sensitive or, dare I say, hysterical.
It feels a bit odd to give Rideshare a numerical score, in large part because some of my quibbles came from me thinking, Well, I wouldn’t feel uncomfortable if someone said this to me (at least towards the beginning) therefore the script has flaws, but I fully recognize that many other people—women—might have a different opinion. Are they being overly sensitive? Am I being overly apathetic? But, to its credit, Rideshare doesn’t try to discuss if Gina’s fears are unfounded. It only says: here is a woman feeling threatened in a one-on-one situation with a man, her experience is very much shaped by her gender, and it doesn’t really matter that much if you think she’s overreacting because her fear is very real—and, of course, as the film goes on, doubts about Gina overreacting get smaller and smaller.
Fisk does an excellent job at keeping the feeling of claustrophobia throughout the film, helped by the fact that most of it is confined to a single car. For much of the film, we only see Mark from the back and the side, looking at him through Gina’s eyes, a clever and effective choice that keeps him unknowable and menacing. It never becomes too outlandish, except possibly at the end, but I am a sucker for ambiguous endings and easily squashed any incredulity I might have felt. Fisk never beats you over the head with the film’s messages, but they ring loud and clear nonetheless, bolstered by the subtler moments, and I would certainly share a ride with Rideshare. (I’m sorry I couldn’t think of a better pun.)
Limbo is the first film I have seen in theaters in over a year, and the euphoric rush I felt as I walked in and inhaled the smell of popcorn would carry over as I watched the film—though perhaps “euphoric” isn’t quite the word. Limbo follows Syrian refugee Omar (Amir El-Masry), stuck on an isolated Scottish island while his asylum request is processed, familial contact relegated to limited calls in a frigid phone booth (remember those?). It doesn’t quite sound uplifting, and indeed the film gets very dark, but with its deadpan humor and superb performances, Limbo remains full of charm and heart.
The film takes its time to get going, cinematographer Nick Cooke letting us sit in still wide shots that showcase the harsh landscape, the island’s population mere specks against the wild backdrop. At times, Limbo goes a little too slowly through its purgatory, but looks so desolately gorgeous that you don’t mind all that much. The lingering shots, only occasionally interrupted by a pan or tilt, add a hefty dose of charm or humor when needed, or force us to remain is discomfort or despair in the film’s darker moments.
While the island on which he has been stranded is isolated, Omar himself lives with three roommates: the upbeat Farhad (Vikash Bhai), stealer of chickens and lover of Freddie Mercury, and apparent brothers Wasef (Ola Orebiyi) and Abedi (Kwabena Ansah), the former with dreams of becoming a soccer star for Chelsea and the latter with a more realistic take on life. The title of the film proves apt as we watch Omar trudge around this inhospitable island. He goes to cultural awareness classes taught by Helga (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and Boris (Kenneth Collard), who display a lack of awareness themselves, teaching the refugees the past tense by saying phrases like, “I used to ride my elephant to work” or “I used to have a home before coalition forces blew it up.” (As an example of their own, one of the other refugees offers up, “I used to be happy until I came here.”)
Omar, almost always clad in a bright blue jacket, holds on desperately to the one piece of his old life he has left: his grandfather’s oud, a guitar-like instrument he carries around in a case everywhere he goes. Yet he finds himself unable to play, despite his father’s constant refrain—“A musician who does not play his instrument is dead”—ringing in his ears. Omar himself seems drained of life, dragging his untouched oud, mournfully staring at the ignorant locals who ask him not to “blow up shite or rape anyone” before offering him a ride to town.
Writer and director Ben Sharrock carefully balances melancholy with charm here, playing off Omar’s stoicism against roommate Farhad’s relentless cheer as well as the absurdity and ignorance of the locals. El-Masry delivers a performance that is by equal measures funny and heartbreaking even as Omar’s face remains passive for much of the film; the moment when Omar finally begins to react is all the more effective when contrasted with his earlier stoicism. Bhai’s Farhad provides a joyful foil, and while Wasef and Abedi share less screentime than their other roommates, Orebiyi and Ansah more than make up for it with a pair of wrenching performances.
Limbo seems like an impossible film, especially when many refugee stories today are treated by Hollywood with a somberness and self-seriousness better befitting a funeral than something involving living, breathing people. Yet Sharrock easily breathes a new life to this story, bolstered by El-Masry and his co-stars (yes, I have repeatedly mentioned how good El-Masry is; yes, he is that good), finding a deeper empathy in Limbo by focusing on the small scale and the irrefutably human, refusing to give us the standard shlock and making a film all the better for it.
Asad Farooqui’s smart and deftly funny short Congratulations (originally called Mabrook, an Arabic word meaning largely the same thing) opens with Amir, played by Farooqui himself, filming a self-tape for a movie, hoping to land the lauded role of… Terrorist Number Two. Amir is a struggling actor, trying to make it in a world where Muslim performers are delegated to suicide bombers and hijackers; on top of this, Amir still lives at home with his badgering but well-meaning parents (Rajiv Vora and Rabinder Campbell) who like to keep interrupting his audition tapes.
The family is getting ready for Eid, the celebratory breaking of the Ramadan fast, and are joined by Amir’s uncle Abbas (Navin Gurnaney) and his family, including nephew Dr. Jameel (Manahar Kumar), who respectfully looks down upon Amir’s soon-to-be MFA, and Jameel’s fiancée (and cousin), Maaria (Nasim).
Farooqui milks the awkward family dynamics for all their worth, creating an instantly familiar feeling for anyone who has ever had any sort of family gathering. Here, the lines in the sand are drawn not between generations, as often happens, but between geographic locations: Abbas and Jameel, who have both lived in Pakistan, versus Amir, who has not. Abbas and Jameel both praise former Pakistan prime minister Nawaz Sharif and insult Hindus, and Amir’s criticisms fall on deaf ears, his comments weightless because he has not lived in Pakistan himself. (Farooqui milks humor out of these conflicts, too, not only through the script but through the shot setups and staging, so we squirm along with Amir and his father as Jameel and Abbas judge us from above.)
Farooqui is careful never to let any of his characters drift into caricature, unlike whoever wrote Terrorist Number Two: Jameel and Abbas are not the hyperconservative, misogynistic monsters that many Western movies would have us believe. Their flaws come out in smaller ways—a comment here, a snide glance there. They are the family members whom you encounter every Thanksgiving with outdated and problematic beliefs, not cartoonish cronies. Nor is Amir hyper-Westernized; he prays with his family in traditional clothing, embracing his faith while simultaneously advocating more liberal ideas.
Therein lies Congratulations’ biggest success: it juxtaposes the players in Amir’s real life—educated, civil (by and large)—and Amir himself with those he has been delegated to play in the movies—unnamed, fanatical. And, as Congratulations shows, the former proves far more interesting and watchable than the latter. We watch Amir interact with his family, watch conflicts and personalities that mirror everyone else’s, and then see the MFA hopeful trudge back upstairs to resignedly refilm his audition for Terrorist Number Two, a role that strips him of all the humanity we have just witnessed.
Lieke Bezemer’s short ECHO breaks down film to its bare parts—moving images and sound. The images: the snow in Hokkaido, Japan. The sound: Bezemer’s voiceover, grappling with her sexual assault. The two seem somewhat disconnected at first; aside from a reference to “bleak landscapes,” it appears the image is simply there for us to gaze upon. As the film progresses, and Bezemer’s narration becomes more and more frantic, the two collide: the images become wilder, cutting with reckless abandon, and the sound of crows matching a flurry of wings on screen, all serving to illustrate the inner chaotic trauma that resulted from this assault. It’s a powerful move—we only see snow, waves, birds, but we understand Bezemer’s psyche better than if we had seen anything straightforward and “realistic.” In only six minutes, the film manages to convey what others cannot in two hours.
Which came first, the visual ideas or the script? They seem so connected, like you can’t have one without the other, and I was wondering you arrived at the combination of these exact words and these exact images.
Well thanks, that is a great compliment! Actually, the script came at the very final stage. For most of the process, I didn’t even think I was going to be writing one! Where the visuals are a more universal representation of trauma, the script is deeply personal. ECHO is based on my own experiences and before I started making this film I couldn’t talk about my traumas. Understanding, let alone communicating, what you’re experiencing feels impossible – which is actually scientifically acknowledged by brain scans. The rational brain half ‘shuts down’ when triggered by trauma, disconnecting emotions from language. But as I like to say, I ‘hacked’ the system. I wasn’t able to find the words to describe what I was going through, but I found visuals. Combined with stories of Japanese mythology, all of the research on trauma I did and the actual shooting of ECHO created a world tangible enough to then be put into words again: the voice-over where I speak about my sexual abuse. Maybe not a conventional workflow, but I couldn’t have found my voice any other way.
What specifically drew you to Hokkaido? Had you been there before?
I had been to Japan twice and developed a slight addiction to it. I hadn’t been to Hokkaido though, but I knew I wanted to shoot a film in Japan at some point. Japan and I had some unfinished business. The country and its mysteries lingered in my mind during the very first phase of researching for the film. However, I didn’t want the location to dictate the story: the story itself should be the priority. So I let Japan go for a while. The decision to use Hokkaido as the shooting location happened at the exact same time as deciding on nature to carry the narrative. Early on in the process, I decided that I wasn’t going to use people to tell this story of trauma. I was looking for a more abstract, poetic and interpretive narrative. Using nature made more sense to me, given my specialization in nature films. However, I wasn’t quite sure yet. When I randomly found a photo of Hokkaido by Jefflin Ling on Instagram—I was convinced completely. The photo, consisting of a few trees in a minimalistic and eerie snow landscape, touched me more than any piece of art on trauma that I had come across. I couldn’t explain why just yet, but this was the embodiment of trauma for me. This is what it felt like. Later on I discovered that the landscapes perfectly symbolized the dissociation I experienced with my PTSD, where you go into a state of numbness by pushing everything away: emotions, memories, passions, friends—anything that makes you feel at all. All that makes you feel alive. A very common survival mechanism where, on the outside, I started to stare into the distance for hours on end. On the inside, I was burying everything that could remind me of my traumas under a thick blanket of snow, and my mind just went completely blank. This was our starting point for ECHO.
How much footage did you get from Hokkaido? How did you go about cutting down said footage?
We shot a lot of footage for a film that’s just under seven minutes long, probably around eleven hours of raw footage. Cutting down came natural to me and my editor Erik van der Bijl: if a shot didn’t serve a specific purpose, it had to go. We rather wanted to use one long shot than three shorter ones. Rather too little than too much. Instead of going through all of the footage and lining up everything with potential, we created folders with the different types of shots, and searched for a shot when we needed it. With the whole edit being so associative, we made a bunch of different versions before we landed on a flow that we liked.
Once you had the footage, did you change the script at all?
Well, yeah. I made the very first draft of the script. 🙂
How did you decide which clips went with which words? Did you have a clear idea before starting the editing process, or did you discover what fit along the way?
We knew the film had to go from dissociation (numbing) to an anxiety attack (intense fear), and we knew the importance and meanings of the elements like the crows and the abandoned home. After a few versions of the edit I started writing the voice-over with the three phases of that edit: numbing—increasing tension—anxiety attack. Four actually, if you count the returning to numbing at the very end. From this, we discovered that the edit needed a different build up. These phases were a gradual shift rather than an inner battle. So we came up with two setbacks in the second phase, and I rewrote the script. From that script we made a new edit. From that edit we minimalized the script. From that script we made the final edit. Finally, we changed one or two last words in the script. Then we might’ve changed one last shot in the final edit, but who’s counting?
Do you have any films or filmmakers that inspired you with this film? (I felt—and I might be making this up!—some Alain Resnais vibes.)
I understand what you mean, but honestly, not really haha! I actually get my inspiration from various sources and disciplines. Film isn’t necessarily the first source I turn to when making a film. It’s often a mix of things. For ECHO in particular, as I couldn’t find a live-action film on trauma that I could really relate to. All the more reason to make one myself. Obviously, my work is deeply influenced by the all of the nature films I studied over the years. With other documentary genres, Dutch director Marina Meijer inspired me in many ways. She often works with small crews, sometimes even doing the cinematography herself. She taught me how to choose a fitting ‘micro cosmos’ to tell a story, how every shot in the film should serve that story, and to not rush the process: take the time to do your story justice. So in short: the story is top priority, and every decision should serve this. Her comment on how a language barrier creates the opportunity to tell the story even more visual resonated with ECHO. Not only with filming in Japan, but also with being unable to find the words to speak about trauma. Another film that inspired me while making Echo was the animation film My Father’s Room on domestic abuse, by Nari Jang. A narrative fueled by images rather than a script. The metaphorical approach enabled by the animation process is without limits and inspired me adapt this way of thinking too. In both ECHO and My Father’s Room, there is little to no use of color, and negative space is just as important as filled space. There is strength in simplicity, modesty even. But what impressed me most is that it gave me, the audience, the unique opportunity to enter the mind of this specific abused girl—which from then on was the goal for ECHO too.
I’ve always found that, ironically, the “unreality” of art often arrives at the truth of something more so than real life. What makes art—and specifically film—so effective when addressing traumas, despite being “unreal”?
I completely agree! It also depends on what your definition of ‘real’ and ‘unreal’ is. Is reality what we all share together, the ‘truth’? Or does everyone have their own reality, more like someone’s perspective or experiences? Not everything that’s real is visible. There is a whole dimension to reality that isn’t tangible. Experiences aren’t tangible, but that doesn’t make them unreal. Art—and specifically film—are powerful tools for providing the audience with a new perspective. Film can show you the invisible: the emotions, thoughts, philosophies, memories, pain, etc. And say, you do describe ‘reality’ as the ‘truth’; where a tree is just a tree, and a rape is just forced penetration. There is no depth in that. It doesn’t do the complexity of the situation justice. Showing the reality of trauma is exactly that: just traumatic. Showing the reality of rape is too hard to look at and it doesn’t even serve the message. There is no layering in that narrative. There is no fluidity in time. There is no opportunity for interpretation. There is no healing, only struggle. No hope, only pain. The ‘unreal’ can be all of these things morphed into one: ‘reality’ layered with all of these invisible dimensions—creating a more full, complete story than ‘reality’ alone ever could. Another beauty of the ‘unreal’, is that it makes people want to watch a film with their guards down; because it’s not real anyways, right? But the story is, at its core, very real. And when the guards are down—souls are touched.
What was your favorite movie of 2020 (or of 2021 so far)? In all honesty, I’ve been so busy with ECHO during 2020 that I haven’t watched that many movies..! But on my ‘to watch-list’ are Rewind, House of Hummingbird, Coded Bias, To the Ends of the Earth, Nomadland, First Cow and Gunda.
Hope takes it time to unfold. We are introduced to its protagonists, a French man and a British woman stopping at an American diner. We don’t know what they’re doing here, only that something seems off. The darkness is interrupted by the neon lights of the diner, and the quiet by a fussing child. Slowly, over the course of the film, we begin to understand the sense of melancholia that smothers the main couple, and why the woman begins to cry when she looks at the toddler sitting across the aisle from her; when it clicks, it hits like a gut punch. The performances from Jane Dowden and Yann Gael are superb, and the accompanying music beautiful—while the closing montage may lay the cheese on a bit too thick, everything that came before it remains powerfully affecting and gorgeously shot.
When did you first get the idea for this film? How long did the process from idea to post-production take?
The idea of the story originated from the diner. I would pass it as a kid when we went on road trips as a family, it had this isolated Americana feel that made me always want to stop and get a burger, we never did. I never thought too much of it back then but as I got older and drove the road myself I often thought about my short memories of it as a child. Now a director I always thought it would be a great place to shoot something. I wondered who went there and where they were going. This was the beginning of the story. When it came to writing the film we had a lot of crazy ideas that just felt too elaborate, I was constantly trying to simplify. It was then I started to consider my own personal fears as a father and how we could create a very human story surrounding the issue of parental fear. From there it just formed a life of its own.
Were there any major script changes from conception to end?
No not really. We had the script down pretty quickly and pretty much stuck to it all the way through. The one thing I did tinker with is the moment where Jane (Her) gets ups and moves seats. This is something that actually came about in the casting sessions. I felt that moving her mid-scene, although subtle, heightened the intensity of the moment.
The film follows a French man and British woman in an American diner. Did you always plan to have an international cast? What do you think that brings to the story?
We did, yes. It was important for me to disorient the audience as to where they were in the world. I wanted it to feel like this could be anywhere, a universal believability.
The film did such a good job of teasing out the reason for the couple’s journey—how do you make sure not to give the realization away in the early parts of the film while still maintaining emotional truth?
As important as the climatic realisation is for the audience I always knew it wouldn’t be appreciated unless you felt something for the characters. So the intention was to not focus on a reveal of any sort but to focus on the human disposition of the characters, their relationship and nuanced body language. Tapping into what they would be feeling and how the environment around them would be affecting them. This I believe helped to focus on the right moments. I think on second viewing you start to see the signs much earlier as to what’s going on which is all a result of the above.
I thought the film was beautifully shot. How does your background in photography influence your directing? What does one medium offer that the other can’t, and vice versa?
I think photography taught me discipline and efficiency, especially given that I only know how to work a film camera. You have to be economical with what you’re doing, make each moment count. I was a director before I was a photographer but what I would say is, I never truly understood directing until I became a photographer, more specifically I’d say photography helped me to understand my and feel confident in my tastes and decision making.
You were the editor as well; what was that process like? Did you leave anything on the cutting room floor?
I wasn’t supposed to cut this film. I had an editor that I’d been working with for some years who was supposed to come in and cut with me in the room. However, Covid hit and this made things really difficult. We shot at the beginning of March 2020 and the rushes came back from the lab pretty much just as Covid was starting to really affect things. I thought it was all going to pass by the summer and was happy to take a break but that wasn’t to be. Realising the situation we were in and how I didn’t want to do a remote edit I decided the right thing to do would be to cut it myself.
The music by Kyle Preston was gorgeous—how much input did you have on the music? What was that collaboration like?
So it’s funny, the music was actually found on a licensing website. It’s actually two of Kyle’s songs from an album he had online that I played around with, looping, cutting and fusing until we had one continuous piece of music. Once I had something I was pleased with we reached out to Kyle to see if was up for doing something bespoke but he watched it and really enjoyed what we’d done and suggested some things but fundamentally we kept it to what we had.
Most mothers will do almost anything for their child. In After Class, this includes stealing money to pay for school. An unnamed single mother (Youfeng Zhang) works as a janitor at a school, cleaning the messes the kids leave behind as her daughter, Sumin (Yiyi Sun), watches her peers from afar, unable to join in since her mother cannot afford the tuition. Sun brings a natural wide-eyed innocence to Sumin, instantly endearing us to her, and Zhang sells the mother’s increasing desperation as she tries to provide the life her child deserves despite lacking the adequate funds.
As it turns out, some children will do almost anything for their mother. A small white lie about the source of their money results in drastic consequences for Sumin and her mother, and the conclusion to the film, despite its inevitability, is devastating.
After Class is an easy film to look at, with its shots often framed beautifully by the bleak school hallways, the mother small in the distance as she mops the floors. Some plot beats feel a little too easy or contrived, but the strong performances and strong emotional current throughout the film ensures that we don’t want to think to hard about plausibility, and After Class successfully—and horrifically—brings to life the realities of socioeconomic privilege and the sacrifices we make for family.
Trish Petrovich has cemented herself as the go-to costume designer for Hallmark and Lifetime movies such as A Sugar & Spice Holiday and A Timeless Christmas. Here, she sits down to talk with Anna about her career path, her research methods, and various projects.
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.