THE STORY – Nothing in Cassie’s life is what it appears to be — she’s wickedly smart, tantalizingly cunning, and she’s living a secret double life by night. Now, an unexpected encounter is about to give Cassie a chance to right the wrongs from the past.
THE CAST – Carey Mulligan, Bo Burnham, Alison Brie, Clancy Brown, Jennifer Coolidge, Connie Britton & Laverne Cox
THE TEAM – Emerald Fennell (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 113 Minutes
By Nicole Ackman
“Promising Young Woman” has one of the most distinct opening scenes of any film this year. Charli XCX’s “Boys” plays to very stylized shots of men’s less-than-toned mid-sections mediocrely dancing in a club. It’s a perfect example of the female gaze that the film employs throughout as it crafts a story that reveals the many ways in which misogyny influences the lives of the characters and how the patriarchy is literally dangerous for women.
For all its other problems, 2020 has been a year of great directorial debuts, particularly from female directors. One of the strongest of those is actress Emerald Fennell’s “Promising Young Woman,” a part thriller, part comedy, part revenge tale which she wrote and directed. Since its announcement and particularly since it screened at Sundance in January, the film has been a hot topic and greatly anticipated by many, myself included. But what I had heard about the film and what was shown in the trailers in no way prepared me for the emotional journey that the film provides.
Med-school dropout Cassie (Carey Mulligan) works in a coffee shop run by Gail (Laverne Cox) and lives with her parents. Her mother (Jennifer Coolidge) is concerned with her lack of drive. But on the side, Cassie is seeking revenge for an event that happened years before that continues to consume her. The film is divided into chapters marked by Roman numerals, whose impact only really unfolds towards the film’s end. The crime at the center of the film is horrific, though all too familiar, and those who are sensitive to stories around sexual assault should take caution though nothing graphic is shown.
Fennell delves into rape culture and sexism head-first from a group of businessmen complaining about a female coworker to confronting the attitude that women who are assaulted were “asking for it” to catcalling on the street. It highlights how both men and women contribute to this problem, not letting anyone off the hook. Alfred Molina and Alison Brie both give great performances as characters who demonstrate the different ways in which people are complicit in assault. It’s not a particularly subtle take on the subject, but Fennell isn’t interested in subtlety. She’s interested in calling out how our society fails women.
Some may take issue with the film’s third act, and the ending in particular. But it seems critical to the point that Fennell is making about the ways in which our society lets men off the hook for their actions and the lengths that they are willing to go to in order to preserve themselves. It is also a testament to Cassie’s character, her own personal struggles, and her ability to mastermind a situation.
Fennell’s direction is expert, far above the level anyone could expect from a debut. She is able to walk a line of not shying away from explicit content without ever becoming too graphic. She clearly knows that there is power in not showing something on the screen and one of the most poignant moments of the film is simply Mulligan reacting to a piece of news.
Fennell also handles tonal shifts very well, weaving in and out of seeming like a horror movie at times (with help from the suspenseful score by Anthony Willis that gives it almost a Hitchcock feel) to being a domestic comedy (with help from the fantastic soundtrack). The movie follows the relationship between Cassie and pediatric doctor Ryan (Bo Burnham), with whom she attended med school with. The relationship montage of Cassie and Ryan is excellent and better than many rom-coms I’ve watched. Burnham brings an irresistible charm to his role that I wasn’t aware he was capable of.
As great as the other elements of the film are, the undisputed best part is Mulligan’s performance as Cassie. She is able to shift as Cassie herself plays many roles, as expertly as the hair and makeup and costume shift from braids with ribbons to purposefully smeared lipstick. Cassie is a very complex character whose motivations continue to unfold over the course of the film. Even when her actions might seem dubious, it’s easy for the audience to empathize with her. Much of that comes from how Mulligan can simultaneously portray her vulnerability and her manipulativeness and carefully created persona. Mulligan’s performance is powerful; she runs the gamut of every human emotion.
Fennell has paid meticulous attention to every detail of this film, from the lighting to the framing of shots, the same way that Cassie pours precision into her own plans. Her script is razor-sharp, full of both humor and cutting lines, but with very raw emotion underneath. With every watch, there is something new to discover.
For women, so many of the men that we see in this film are familiar, from the man who wants to regale you with stories of the novel he’s writing to the businessman who takes for granted that you’re interested in him to the man who tells you that you’re prettier without makeup like it’s some kind of favor. The wrongs we see done are familiar too. We’ve watched them happen to ourselves and our friends since we were teens, if not before. With “Promising Young Woman,” Fennell brings these truths into the light in a way that’s impossible to ignore while putting you through every feeling that a human can have at the same time.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – This daring film has impeccable style, a relevant and bold message, and a stunning lead performance from Carey Mulligan.
THE BAD – The film is not to everyone’s taste and some may find the ending distasteful.