A Promising Debut from Emerald Fennell

DIRECTOR: EMERALD FENNELL/2020

PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN (2020) poster

Here’s the first thing we learn about Cassandra Thomas: She’s an actress.

We meet her in a pulsing nightclub, her bangs falling into glassy eyes and her head drooping into a skirt suit. She can’t find her phone and hops into a car with a man she just met. As she mumbles, “What are you doing?” on his bed, he slides his hands under her skirt, and she couldn’t seem more helpless—that is, until we hear a loud, slur-free, “What. Are. You. Doing.”

The next thing we learn: Cassie (Carey Mulligan) has this routine down to an art, as revealed by the tick marks in her notebook. Every weekend she pretends to be drunk, goes home with a guy who offers to “help her out,” and just when he thinks he’s got her where he wants her—BAM! She’s alert and calling him out on the assault in progress. How rudely she wakes him from the charade depends entirely on how he behaved when she appeared incapacitated—will she leave just after playing mind games with him or with blood dripping down her arms?

Aside from the social justice of it all, why does Cassie risk her safety every weekend to do this? That, my friends, is the mystery of Promising Young Woman, a film I must confess I dragged my feet on renting. Since I often skip torture and assault scenes OK’ed for network television, what are the odds I would make it through (much less enjoy) a film filled with those situations? When it earned a Best Picture nomination, I decided to give it a chance but also give myself permission to quit if it was too troubling. Since you’re reading this review, you know that didn’t happen, and after those low expectations, I was just as floored as you to discover I loved Promising Young Woman.

Carey Mulligan in PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN (2020)

Emerald Fennell’s feature writing/directing debut feels equal parts Kill Bill (my favorite film by Quentin Tarantino), Marie Antoinette (my favorite film by Sofia Coppola), and something all her own. A revenge thriller with a hit list of victims to terrorize? Straight out of the Bride’s playbook. A candy-coated, pastel color palette coordinated down to Cassie’s rainbow fingernails? Cue up Bow Wow Wow’s version of “I Want Candy” and pile Kirsten Dunst’s hair mile-high. The soundtrack is full of female-voiced songs with nods to 2000s pop singers that feel ironic (Paris Hilton’s “Stars Are Blind”) and affectionate (an eerie instrumental cover of Britney Spears’s “Toxic”). With a surprising amount of humor (at least, for a story about rape) and most of the violence implied instead of shown, you might even call this movie a good time.

Speaking of the turn of the Millennium, Fennell and the casting team seem to have deep affection for stars we first met that decade. Jennifer Coolidge, who plays Cassie’s exasperated mother, broke out in a big way in Legally Blonde. Alison Brie helped launch one of my favorite sitcoms, Community; Connie Britton is best-known for Friday Night Lights; and Molly Shannon was transitioning from Saturday Night Live player to a performer in major movies. As for the, ahem, “gentlemen” of the story (for lack of a better term), Adam Brody played Seth Cohen, patron saint of Chrismakkuh on The O.C. Christopher Mintz-Plasse? Made his film debut as the memorable McLovin’ in Superbad. Max Greenfield and Chris Lowell? Both love interests for teen detective Veronica Mars, another icon for post-assault empowerment. And Cassie’s love interest, Bo Burnham? A comedian who became famous as a teenage stand-up and transformed his reputation writing and directing the sensitive Eighth Grade.

Bo Burnham and Carey Mulligan in PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN (2020)

But the roles that made these actors are more important than the era they caught our attention. Every one of them has captured our hearts or made us laugh as lovable underdogs, many of them nerds and a few of them heartthrobs. We’re happy to see them because we associate them with characters who, though flawed, are generally good people. We’ve identified with their stories, and we’re inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt. Their characters in Promising Young Woman greet us with the exteriors we expect of nice people, and these characters believe they’re nice people, too. But with few exceptions, we discover most of them are, at best, too clueless or naïve to do the right thing, making them complicit in or complacent toward an aggressive crime. At worst, they’re active participants with no remorse. So how do we know whom we can trust? Like Cassie, they’re all actors playing parts, and they’re so convincing they’ve fooled even themselves. It begs the question: Are we in the audience just pretending to be “nice people” when confronted with these situations, too?

As that uncomfortable question hangs in the air, don’t let Cassie’s dry wit and cutesy dresses fool you into thinking Promising Young Woman is here just for a good time. This comedy-meets-mystery-meets-social commentary is a scathing indictment of how our culture objectifies women and responds to rape, and Carey Mulligan is a brittle forest lit with the fire of a rage-filled grief. One of the joys of this film is watching the twisty plot play out—don’t worry, I won’t spoil it for you—and it’s only believable because Mulligan plays Cassie as broken, diabolical, intelligent, and sympathetic all at once. Fennell’s script also walks the delicate line of making Cassie worth rooting for without condoning her choices. When she goes to town on a car with a tire iron, we (and the film) know this is an unhealthy way to deal with her pain, but we understand the frustration she’s expressing. We may not feel sorry for the self-righteous victims of her revenge plot, but we do feel sorry for her, if for no other reason than we can see she’ll never find peace from her schemes.

Carey Mulligan in PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN (2020)

In addition to the ‘00s tours de force of Coppola and Tarantino, Promising Young Woman reminds me of another more popcorn-oriented flick: Taken. That ‘00s action-adventure featured a generic good-guy-played-by-charismatic-actor vs. generic bad guys setup, and its body count dwarfs the bloodshed of Promising Young Woman, but Liam Neeson’s hero is fighting for basically the same thing as Mulligan’s antihero: protection for women and justice for those who sexually abuse. So why is this year’s Best Picture nom considered controversial and political when it’s covering similar territory to a box office hit from over 10 years ago?

Some of it does come down to genre—no one expects realism or much insight from a formulaic blockbuster with no awards aspirations. That said, I suspect it’s also because of the feelings each film leaves with us. Though profits demanded sequels, Taken ends with a weirdly neat bow on its characters’ trauma. Despite loss along the way, the bad guys have been dealt with, a daughter’s future is restored, and we’re left with a cautionary tale filled with practical steps about how to prevent tragedy. While there is value in that (I sure hope everyone knows now not to tell strangers where you’re staying and that you’re alone), it also reinforces the fear I feel every time I walk outside my front door. To be a woman is to feel like you could lose control of your body at any time to a man’s whims, and Taken is a worst-case scenario that makes me never want to go outside again.

Carey Mulligan in PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN (2020)

 Promising Young Woman, on the other hand, is cathartic. When Cassie deadpans, “Can you guess what every woman’s worst nightmare is?” I am hearing my thoughts aloud. When the opening shots comically focus on gyrating khakis at a night club as Charli XCX chants, “I was busy thinking ‘bout boys,” I think about how many minutes of the Fast and Furious franchise have spent ogling women’s bodies as casual texture to their bro-centric world. When Cassie serves comeuppance to those who have dehumanized a rape victim, I realize I could muster enough anger to execute her wild plot even if I don’t have the chutzpah. Taken is the fear of the nightmare, while Promising Young Woman is the hope for life after it. I finished feeling empowered, so much so I walked by a construction site this week wishing someone would whistle so I could stare him into a guilty conscience. (For many reasons, it’s good this didn’t happen—I’m not sure that moment would translate into the real world.)

Promising Young Woman is an unconventional awards season pick, but it’s a welcome change of pace from standard Oscar bait. It’s full of style, but leads with character. It holds a point of view, but it’s not preachy. It’s full of surprises, but it’s not coasting on shock value. And while its story is something that could only (probably?) happen in a movie, it feels as urgent and relevant as ever. Though the movie does end with a literal wink, it does not end with a tidy bow. There are still plenty of “nice guys” derailing the futures of promising young women after the credits roll, and Cassie’s work feels like it’s just the beginning of turning the tide in her world.