Content Warning: Sensitive topics such as sexual assault are discussed, and major plot details will be revealed.
Emerald Fennell’s recent feature, “Promising Young Woman”, is predictable and while also wildly unexpected. With that said, this new film brings life to the tired revenge-fantasy narrative. It’s a recipe that calls for a darkly comic sense of justice mixed with a strong female protagonist, and the viewer can’t help feeling entertained by this spectacle.
Fennell brings a keen eye to the film with a distinctive, retro-inspired design. The blast from the past coffee shop, the antiquated parent’s house, the sex-inspired baby pinks, and blues, and even the protagonist (Cassie’s) attire all ring in with a bright vintage style. In essence, the production design of the film screams MILLENNIAL, and the writing only confirms it. Fennell is most famous for acting as the show-runner on season 2 of the BBC’s “Killing Eve,” a beloved British thriller, from which she scored 2 primetime Emmy nominations. Her experience as a writer shines through in some of the comedic banter sprinkled throughout. Its central focus concerns the lives of budding young medical professionals and their apparent “hipness.” It hits the millennial nail on the head.
If all it takes to get asked out is to spit in some dude’s coffee . . . I think many of us have been going at it all wrong. Casting Bo Burnham as the awkward love interest in this film was a smart move, and Carey Mulligan’s performance in the leading role truly delivers. Her sarcasm, her cynicism, her intelligence, and her moments of vulnerability equip this story with an intriguing protagonist.
While I do not find this film “five-star” worthy–as it contains some pacing issues that come to a head in a mid-run lull, an almost too plot-driven structure, and even some cheesy dialogue that at times seem forced, Promising Young Woman goes out with a titular bang. Just as I began to lose interest, the movie came diving back in with its first-act momentum in the form of a daring climax and oh-so-satisfying resolution. It seals the deal for me. And to be honest, you can’t help but respect “Promising Young Woman’s” bold choices. For once, a twist that actually feels surprising.
What’s so “promising” about Cassandra Thomas?
“Promising Young Woman” follows Cassie Thomas, a beautiful blonde who works at a coffee shop and still lives with her parents. Boring right? No. On the weekends, she goes out to clubs pretending to be too drunk to stand in the hopes a man will take her back to his apartment. The film begins with Cassie’s act. As her “date” begins to pull down her panties, she suddenly replies with a forceful, “What are you doing?”
The entire opening sequence is an uncomfortable guessing game, and it feels like one of those college orientation videos about what consent doesn’t look like. Is this going to be one of her victims or will she be the victim? This deadpan stare packs a satisfying punch of relief, and while revenge may not often be the best solution, it seems like the best avenue in this heroine’s mission. Best of all, she keeps tally in her tie dye notebook.
But why does Cassie perform such dangerous–yet hilarious–experiments on these scummy men? This is where the “promising” element comes in. Cassie was at the top of her class at medical school until she dropped out after her best friend, Nina Fisher, was sexually assaulted by fellow students. Her accusations fell on deaf ears, and it is revealed later in the narrative that Nina has passed. That said, the plot of “Promising Young Women” revolves around this tragedy and Cassie’s inability to cope with her best friend’s rape and later death.
She is the definition of a goal-oriented protagonist whose mission dictates a quest for justice, and of course, revenge. But instead of taking on the role of violent vigilante, Cassie never physically hurts her victims. She merely places them in situations that force them to confront their guilt and accountability. “Promising Young Women” arrives at a time where issues of women’s agency against sexual assault are most ripe.
Politics’ role in the film
Namely, this film hits the “on-demand” market just a few months after recent Title IX Amendments imposed regulations that favor the accused, or perpetrators, of sex crimes on college campuses. This film directly responds to these notions that being drunk is equivalent to asking for sexual assault, revealing clothing warrants advances, or the number of sexual partners a woman has had in the past devalues her accusation. We live in a world where women are afraid to speak up about this type of abuse, and that is horrific.
“Promising Young Woman” is inherently tied to this realm of feminist politics; its dialogue pays particular attention to the accepted disregard for sexual assault victims,
This film dares to hold individuals (both men and women) accountable for choosing to ignore the voices of sexual assault victims. It points out the absurdity of the notion that one can just blindly scoff at rape as child’s play. Cassie’s mission identifies with the ongoing #MeToo movement; however, this film is not just about politics.
It’s more than just politics
While the film’s main motivation is revenge, it’s still a narrative concerning a real human being trying to get back on their feet. It becomes clear that this quest is emotionally draining to Cassie as she wanders aimlessly through life and adulthood. Her father, played by Clancy Brown, explained “We miss Nina, but God we really missed you”. Essentially, her life has been absorbed by this crisis. She dropped out of medical school but is not sure what she wants to do with her life. Cassie lives at home with her parents and does not seem to want to leave. She has little to no friends and practically forces Ryan (Bo Burnham) away by spitting in his coffee.
This act only sparks their romance, and this romance aims to reconcile Cassie’s unfulfilled justice for Nina. This move seems a bit cheap and typical of large-scale Hollywood films. However, just as you think the film is about to cop-out, it’s reignited with a moment of betrayal.
Bo Burnham never broke my heart more! Cassie found the video of Nina’s rape, and Ryan was lurking in the background of the party. Furthermore, instead of owning up to his mistake, he offers excuses. This plot twist arrives just when Cassie began her “healing” process; she had just met with the regretful lawyer on Nina’s case, had a heart-to-heart with Nina’s mother, found love with Ryan, and even threw out her notebook. But everything comes crashing down in this recovered video. Revenge was never not an option. From this moment on, the film kicks into hyper-speed as Cassie crashes Al Monroe’s (Nina’s rapist) bachelor party as a stripper. As she attempts to engrave Nina’s name into his chest with a scalpel, Al smothers Cassie with a pillow. The film literally killed off its main character. How many times has that happened?
But the film does not end on this depressing note. In case of her disappearance, Cassie sent the video to the lawyer, sent letters to loved ones indicting Al Monroe, and left sassy scheduled text messages to Ryan (so much for a nice guy!). As the police sirens come wailing in during the wedding reception, she gets her revenge. . . and it’s glorious! This film truly defies expectations not only by killing off its lead but fooling us with a failed romance plot. Not to mention, this film provides us with a leading lady whose wit is unmatchable. The film constantly has you guessing: Did Cassie actually hurt any of those people? Whatever happened to Nina?
“Haphazard as ‘Woman’ can seem, it all somehow pulls together at last with a satisfying smack.”‘Promising Young Woman’: A Review by Dennis Harvey for Variety Magazine
Truly . . . this film is worth it for the ending alone.
A slew of girl power films hit screens in the past few years: “Charlie’s Angels,” “Bombshell,” and “Wonder Woman 1984.” Many critics and fans have come to bash these films as shallow and lacking substance. Sometimes, they have a point. “Promising Young Woman” is finally the film that delivers on all fronts; from script to visuals to performances to directing prowess. It is not a remake, but a revision.
“Promising Young Woman” is a masterpiece in the art of blackmail and accountability. Without physically harming anyone in the process (other than herself), Cassie single-handedly avenged the crime that ended up killing her life-long best friend. A pseudo-feminist rallying cry, this film takes a strong and intelligent female lead and makes her actually accomplish something. Instead of being a horror blood bath, this film hits as a dark Rom-Com. This gritty revision of the girl-centric genre is just what we need. With a year like 2020, we need justice (not hopelessly idyllic romance). If you’re not sure whether to spend the six dollars to rent this one on prime? Well hesitate no further, and watch your wildest revenge fantasy come true.