Film, Film Review

REVIEW: Promising Young Woman (2020) dir. Emerald Fennell

Theoritically opening in theaters 12/25; digital release pending

by

EDITOR’S NOTE: While the Hassle treasures the theatrical experience, your health and safety should always come first. Before engaging in any activity in an enclosed public space, please weigh the risks and consider the potential consequences, and know that this review will still be here when this film is available to watch in the safety of your home. In the meantime, we encourage you as always to support your local theater via donations, gift cards, or virtual screening rentals. Be safe out there, and when the time comes, we’ll see you at the movies.

In the two years since the beginning of our long-overdue (and far from over) cultural reckoning, it has become a dispiriting trend among publicist types to label anything with a slight feminist bent as a “fill-in-the-blank for the #MeToo era.” To be sure, many of these projects have been righteous and thoughtful, but just as many have felt cynical and calculated, molding stock Hollywood product to cash in on the idea of female empowerment (the nadir of this phenomenon is last year’s Bombshell, which had the temerity to cast the anchors of Fox News as its protagonists). It is, after all, difficult for any corporate-produced work to convincingly tap into a movement built on millions of individual, deeply personal rebellions against an insidious status quo– especially in an industry which has been inextricably shaped by some of the problem’s worst offenders. All of which makes Promising Young Woman that much more impressive. The scorching feature directorial debut from polymathic showrunner/actress/novelist Emerald Fennell, Promising Young Woman fully taps into the fury of the moment, by turns (and often simultaneously) harrowing, blisteringly funny, and utterly devastating. It’s unlike anything I’ve seen in a very long time, and it’s easily one of the year’s best movies.

Cassie Thomas (a career-best-so-far Carey Mulligan) has a routine. Each Saturday night she meticulously dishevels herself, finds a conspicuous but out-of-the-way corner in a divey nightclub, and puts on a show of being too drunk to possibly say no. When the inevitable sleazebag sidles up to her, she goes home with them, giving them just enough rope to hang themselves with before dropping the charade and putting the fear of god into them. As you can imagine, Cassie is working through trauma, the exact dimensions of which are only slowly revealed. A med-school dropout, Cassie passes her days working in a coffee shop with her friend/manager Gail (Laverne Cox) and living with her well-meaning but exasperated parents (the always welcome Jennifer Coolidge and Clancy Brown). One day, Cassie receives an unexpected ray of light in Ryan (Bo Burnham), a charmingly awkward ex-classmate who manages to crack through her steely exterior. But this memory from her short-lived college stint dredges up a host of less pleasant ones, leading Cassie to push her campaign to its shocking endgame.

As mentioned before, Promising Young Woman is deftly written and often very funny, but you will be forgiven if you find yourself unable to laugh through much of it. Cassie’s encounters with her would-be predators skewer modern masculinity with surgical precision (particularly memorable is Christopher Mintz-Plasse as a coke-snorting douchebag who won’t shut up about David Foster Wallace), but even knowing Cassie’s game and how these scenes will end, it’s hard not to feel a pit in your stomach while watching them. When these creeps think no one is watching– at least, no one who can make a conscious decision to stop them– it’s shocking how quickly they drop their nice-guy pretenses and decide that the rules of decency don’t really apply to them. The catharsis when Cassie drops the hammer is immensely satisfying, but you’re left with the sickly realization that these assholes are real, and disgustingly common at that, and that most of the women they take advantage of aren’t faking their helplessness.

It’s tempting to refer to Promising Young Women as episodic; it’s filled with tightly-written scenes with a beginning, middle, and end, and features a jaw-dropping array of great actors who drop in for one-or-two-scene performances (in addition to those previously named, Molly Shannon, Alison Brie, Alfred Molina, Connie Britton, and Adam Brody all make memorable appearances). Really, though, “novelistic” might be a better word. Each scene, while largely self-contained, brings the picture one notch further into focus, and takes us one step closer to the real Cassie Thomas. When we meet Cassie, she’s something of an enigma, hiding her true motivations and feelings behind one shell after another. She’s obviously playing a character when she’s in the club, but it’s clear that the witheringly sarcastic barista of her “real” life is just as much of a front. Cassie has been deeply wounded by an unjust world, and rather than being broken by it, she compartmentalizes, walling herself off to the outside and devoting herself to righting the wrongs around her. The monologue in which Cassie finally puts it all on the table, laying bare the core of her pain in excruciating detail, is nothing short of levelling. Mulligan, in essence, is playing several characters at once, unifying them into a profoundly relatable whole. Mulligan has rarely been less than excellent, but this role finds her at the peak of her powers.

Likewise, the film itself is just as much a chameleon as its protagonist. This material could have obviously been developed into a brutish exploitation film, and just as easily been turned into a maudlin Lifetime original movie. Instead, Fennell makes the inspired decision to coat the entire film in a sickly-yet-irresistible pop sheen. The dialog cracks with acid wit, and the film, with its candy-colored visuals and highly produced soundtrack, could almost pass as a contemporary teen movie (that the characters are mostly in their 30s underscores how adolescence can bleed into adulthood). There is a stretch around the middle in which the film morphs into an uncanny impression of a mid-2000s rom-com, complete with cheery montage and a winningly cheesy pharmacy aisle dance to Paris Hilton’s “Stars Are Blind.” I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that it does not continue down this path– only the most naive viewer could possibly watch the first act and believe that this would be where Fennell was ultimately leading them– but it does such a good job at emulating the tropes of a “nice” movie that you almost want to believe in spite of yourself.

And that, ultimately, is the point. Most of the guys Cassie allows herself to go home with– and, more importantly, their real-life counterparts– aren’t stereotypical greasy perverts, but rather clean-cut, outwardly respectable young men, doctors and businessmen and philanthropists. Societal norms are powerful things, and if someone appears to be good, then anything they may have done in the past couldn’t be that bad. Likewise, Fennell is so good at adopting the look of an innocuous studio comedy that she tricks us into letting our guards down. Cassie’s mission– and Fennell’s– is to strip away the lie, to prove that youthful indiscretions and wild nights out aren’t so innocent to the women left in their wake. Until we internalize the fact that looks can be deceiving, change will continue to arrive at a snail’s pace.

Promising Young Woman is destined to be a polarizing film; not everyone will be able to hang with its warts-and-all satire of rape culture, and some may find its mixture of black humor and raw emotion distasteful (in the interest of full disclosure, I speak as a relatively trauma-free cishet white man; given the sensitivity of the material, I will graciously defer if you’d rather seek out the opinions of someone whose experience more closely mirrors your own). What is undeniable, though, is the skill and ferocity that Fennell and Mulligan bring to the table. Whatever one thinks of it, this is a film that is impossible to ignore, impeccably crafted, righteously furious, and infectiously quotable. Like its title character, Promising Young Woman refuses to let you look away.

Promising Young Woman
2020
dir. Emerald Fennell
113 min.

Opens Friday, 12/25 at Kendall Square Cinema (but please be careful, and good luck finding a theater open after 12/26 anyway). Digital release forthcoming.

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