“Promising Young Woman” is the best film of the year. Unlike stories already told in the new genre of #MeToo-influenced features, Emerald Fennell’s directorial debut is an entity made for this generation of moviegoers. The film colors a portrait of the millennial experience and is based in an ideology about sexuality, gender roles, and consent in ways we understand. All the while, the movie manages to entertain with euphoric cleverness and turn the audience on their heads in visceral pain. As social criticism, it’s powerful. As a cinematic experience, it’s piled full of love for “the movies” that you would expect from film styles best exhibited by directors like Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, and David O. Russell. Both harsh and heartbreaking, “Promising Young Woman” will go down in history for its achievements, and I hope the Academy chooses to go along for the ride. It is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that tears into your soul.
In a performance that has already been honored by the prestigious Los Angeles Film Critics Circle for Best Actress, Carey Mulligan portrays the film’s protagonist, Cassie. She is one of the most three-dimensional, perfectly curated characters in cinema this year. Mulligan absorbs the character’s shattered backstory and infallible agency and smooths the edges of her infested resentment to fashion a heroine who is consistently charming, melancholy, and commanding. We will remember Cassie, and that is a testament to the portrayal by Mulligan. In the 1980s, the Academy nominated Glenn Close for “Fatal Attraction,” a role and story mired in the sexism of the Reagan era culture norms. This year, the Academy has the opportunity to nominate Mulligan for this performance, one in which her character’s fury is allowed to breathe untainted by misogynist perceptions. A Best Actress nomination for “Promising Young Woman” would be a sign that the Academy is breaking away from honoring the “crazy revenge lady” archetype and embracing more complex female characters from different viewpoints.
On the matter of its Oscar potential, “Promising Young Woman” is the most difficult film of the year to project confidently. This nebulous trajectory is partly because there has never been a film like it before and because the ending of the film is such a wild card. The overall statement the film makes about gender dynamics in society is the toughest pill audiences will swallow at the movies this year. It is inconceivable to predict how any given person will react, let alone members of the Academy.
Even I was not immune from the immediate effect from wrath and truth of “Promising Young Woman.” After relishing in the first 90 minutes, I initially felt so off-centered experiencing the arc of the story. I bounced back as the larger portrait of the film’s message came into focus after the early shock wore off. My worry is that if even I – a young gay guy feminist with an undergraduate degree in Women’s Studies who loves genre films like “Destroyer” similarly – recoiled at first glance when the film took form, how will older Academy members react? I do believe most audiences will be able to get over the hump of the blow in the arc, while others may be triggered or turned off. Thus, it is impossible to get a feel for where “Promising Young Woman” will end up in the awards conversation, especially since so many pieces have yet to fall into place. A secret weapon “Promising Young Woman” has up its sleeve is the cultural conversation it will start because of the lingering impact it will leave on every person who sees it, which is inherently good for its Oscar chances.
As a chapter in literary feminism, “Promising Young Woman” will be a formidable film to follow up. It has an overall effect of being terrifying and emotionally crushing, yet wickedly funny in the most astute ways. Fennell thoroughly probes through an investigation of a corrupt culture, complicity, and the layers of grief surrounding sexual assault. The substance of the film’s ideology is digestible, which empowers the overall effect of Cassie’s journey and her specific mission to achieve thrilling heights. “Promising Young Woman” has the gall to call out the disgusting behavior of men to which society has given a hegemonic pass and soberly portray the actions of men from a vantage point outside of the bubble of American patriarchy. This film shows that patriarchy is not only a social construct but a systematic, cultural force that can limit women’s professional goals, financial success, happiness, and fulfillment.
“Promising Young Woman,” written as well as directed by Fennell, has one of the most epic screenplays in years. It is a masterclass character study, cultural critique, and exploration of an original plot that will make you feel something in your core. Even under a worst-case scenario situation, I predict a Best Original Screenplay nomination for the film. The writing branch often proves to be the most thoughtful group within the Academy in making inspired selections. This year, “Promising Young Woman” is the type of film that will defy the odds and break through with the writers, if no other branch. The screenplay is already making waves in its recognition, fresh off the win for Best Screenplay by the Los Angeles Film Critics Circle.
If all else fails and the majority of the Academy views the film as too radical, my instincts say it will be nominated for its script, similarly to “Nightcrawler” in 2014. Despite receiving every other major Best Actor nomination, Jake Gyllenhaal was snubbed by the Academy, while the writing branch elected his film as a nominee in Best Original Screenplay. “Promising Young Woman” could follow in that path if the film does not exactly land in the way it should with the Academy based on its merit. Yes, by this metric of comparison, there is a chance Mulligan could receive Critics Choice, Golden Globe, SAG, and BAFTA nominations, and miss with the Academy, like Gyllenhaal.
The key to the Oscar prospects of “Promising Young Woman” is simply getting everyone on board and allowing the film to wash over the voters in the way in which it needs. Simply put, “Promising Young Woman” just needs a chance to be seen, taken seriously, and given validation – then it will flourish. Word-of-mouth, critics groups, and early precursors will be valuable to the longevity of the film’s opportunity to build its profile and respect within the industry. By my hyperbolic estimate, the Hollywood Foreign Press wields an ample amount of power over the fate of this movie. They already flexed that power by denying the film’s placement as a Comedy/Musical and announced it would be competing as a Drama. If “Promising Young Woman” manages a Golden Globe nomination for Best Picture Drama, it is in a serious position to pounce into Oscar territory. The film would prove a great deal to its naysayers by making a Best Picture lineup with five spots. Additionally, if Mulligan, who has never been rewarded by the HFPA, wins Best Actress Drama over Viola Davis for “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” (which is very possible since Davis has a complicated history with the HFPA), watch out because she’s coming with a vengeance for a nomination, if not more.
The biggest test of “Promising Young Woman” will be the BAFTA awards. Fennell and Mulligan are both British artists, and if they are snubbed even with home-court advantage, that is a clear sign the film is being lost in translation with Academy-type voters. But if they win nominations in Best Actress and Best Original Screenplay at the BAFTAs, it will allow for the film’s credibility to be legitimized. If the film does this, performs well with the individual guild awards, and builds buzz for solid Oscar nominations in Best Actress and Best Original Screenplay, Best Picture is not too far off with the Academy. And from there, any other nomination is gravy. This scenario – a Golden Globe win for Best Actress, a potential Best Picture nomination, and setting a wildfire of cultural conversation – would place Mulligan in a position to win a fluid Best Actress race.
As previously alluded to, this is the first feature effort by Emerald Fennell as a director, and she hits a home run. With her confident and fierce approach, Fennell makes a case for herself to be in league with young, new-age heavyweight auteurs like Jordan Peele and Greta Gerwig. How she executes “Promising Young Woman” has a thriving sense of cinematic fire. From framing techniques, uses of color, and a strong commitment to femininity, she makes an elevated statement in every scene. Her efforts should lead her to an assured nomination from the Director’s Guild Association for Debut Director. The work is nevertheless deserving of an Oscar nomination for Best Director, but it seems unlikely, even if “Promising Young Woman” achieves nominations for Best Picture, Best Actress, and Best Original Screenplay. But make no mistake, Best Director nomination for Fennell would be revolutionary.
Fennell’s vision of the story materializes with help from the film editing by Frédéric Thoraval. The editing is the most valuable tool at Fennell’s disposal, and by using it in concert with her clever writing, movie-loving tone, and the horrific arc of the story, she creates a post-modern masterpiece. I would argue the editing on display is very much in the wheelhouse of Academy voters. However, to attain the nomination, “Promising Young Woman” has to break into the above-the-line categories for it to trickle down to the below-the-line categories, no matter how deserving. If I could wave a magic wand and make any below-the-line nomination turn from fantasy to reality this year, it would be “Promising Young Woman” in Best Film Editing.
Additionally, “Promising Young Woman” is one of the most satisfying films to listen to this year. The perfectly selected and placed soundtrack, the daunting score, and the overwhelming sound mix gives the impression the film is attacking you in the best manner possible. The original score particularly is an aspect of the film’s construction that allows the film’s genre-combining approach to be effective. Its pitch-black, chilling music is reminiscent of Hildur Guðnadóttir’s Oscar-winning score for “Joker” last year, but even more electrifying. If the Academy has finally surmounted its bias against a gloominess and anxiety-inducing fear in their musical tastes as they demonstrated last year, Anthony Willis’s work should be approved for the Best Original Score shortlist.
“Promising Young Woman” would be worthy of a Best Sound Mixing nomination, as well, for everything that it is managing at once, as well as a handful of specific narrative choices that leave viewers speechless. Unfortunately, this branch may only deliver for this movie in a best-case scenario since this genre is not typically what the branch considers when casting their ballots. And if another similarly soundtrack-heavy film like “American Hustle” cannot break into the Sound Mixing category, along with its ten nominations in 2013, I would say this is an enormous long shot. But it would be deserved.
The craft and technical aspects of “Promising Young Woman” are upstanding and also deserve consideration by the Academy. The symmetrical sets, and neon-bright colors, and eye-popping costumes are success stories for contemporary film design. Watch out for the film’s contention at the guild awards for these aspects. But the real gem of the technicalities is the stunning cinematography by Benjamin Kračun. The colors extracted from the cinematography, the way the camera frames and moves around Cassie, her appearance, and her surroundings is always fascinating, original, and aesthetically pitch-perfect. The visual language conveyed in “Promising Young Woman” will make audiences feel a sense of reinvigorated vitality for the art form of cinema. There is a reasonable argument to be made for “Promising Young Woman” to break into this branch considering its achievements. However, many cards would have to fall into place for the film and its luck.
In summary, here is my guide to the Oscar potential of “Promising Young Woman“:
Very Safe Nominations
Best Original Screenplay
Very Worthy, In the Fight
Best Film Editing
Best Original Score
Deserving on Merit, Faces Uphill Battle
Best Sound Mixing
Strong Player at the Guilds
Best Art Direction
Best Costume Design
Do you agree with Ryan’s take? What are your thoughts? How will “Promising Young Woman” meet with the Academy and perform at the Oscars? Will Carey Mulligan be nominated for Best Actress? Let us know in the comments section down below or on our Twitter account and be sure to check out our latest Oscar predictions here.
You can follow Ryan and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @rcs818