SUNDANCE REVIEW: ‘Promising Young Woman’ (2020) is Tired of Hearing Your Excuses for Men (Yes, all of them)

Rating: 5 out of 5.

“Carey Mulligan is a cunningly wicked powerhouse.”

This review contains spoilers for Promising Young Woman and mentions of sexual assault.

After the rape and subsequent death of her lifelong best friend Nina Fisher, Cassie Thomas (Carey Mulligan) drops out of medical school to become a barista by day, and a vigilante by night. Cassie teaches “nice guys” that they may not be so nice after all. Every week, she pretends to get tragically wasted at bars, only to then soberly confront them with the objectively clear errors of their ways once it becomes obvious that the men see consent as more of an afterthought than a requirement for sex, an experience that will be all too familiar to most women. The way that Cassie deals with these nice guys is bold, but not illegal or even particularly violent; she is not going on a murderous rampage á la Beatrix Kiddo, but she’s not playing by the rules either. All of the male characters know inside that what they are doing is wrong – the bar creeps, the cat callers, the rapists, the lawyers hired to protect the rapists – they are always excused and always get away with it, no matter how serious the crime. They have never been held accountable and have never had someone shove the mirror in their face the way Cassie does.

Promising Young Woman is being promoted as a “delicious new take on revenge,” which is true if your definition of “revenge” is “men being held accountable for their actions” and your definition of “delicious” is “not nearly as violent as conventional rape revenge films.” Director/writer Emerald Fennell has achieved many praise worthy feats with this film, but perhaps the most impressive is the way she has shattered the myth that in order to explore brutal rape or other forms of violence artistically, you need to unflinchingly show it. Traditionally, rape revenge narratives rely more heavily on grand acts of gratuitous violence rather than addressing the larger social institutions. In this case, the guilty institution is college campuses, facilitated through the excuses people make to protect (specifically white) men. These men are granted the gross, unchecked power to sexually assault women and continue on with their lives without consequence, while their victims are never so lucky. As Fennell and most of us are all too aware, one in four young women will be sexually assaulted on college campuses across America. A lot of those women will be in the audience-what would be the point of alienating them by portraying a brutal assault on-screen?

A particular aspect of surviving serious trauma which Promising Young Woman gets right, where many other films go wrong, is portraying the way this assault completely devours Cassie’s career ambitions, and subsequently changes the way her friends and family treat her. While they are well-meaning, her mother (Jennifer Coolidge) and boss (Laverne Cox) are only able to understand the surface of Cassie’s angst and never reach the root. Personally, I found Cassie to be an easy protagonist to connect with because she doesn’t aspire to anything-how can she, when everything and everyone around her has let her down so catastrophically. Nina’s mom (Molly Shannon) encourages Cassie to move on, and even when she decides to let it go, the past refuses to stay dead, as it often does.

The performances of Promising Young Woman are all unique and genius in their own ways, as Fennell is able to empathize with every character woven into this tapestry, sewn around the tragedy of Nina’s death. Carey Mulligan is a cunningly wicked powerhouse; even when certain plot points are predictable, it’s difficult to tell what Cassie will do next. Mulligan’s performance brings a lot of texture to a role that could easily fall into the skin deep trap of “strong female character.” Bo Burnham stands out as Cassie’s old college friend turned new boyfriend who has skeletons in the closet of his own. Burnham has the range to both publicly sing “Stars are Blind” without an ounce of self-consciousness, and then delve into the darker, introspective work that his character requires. Even each of the bar creeps, portrayed by well-known male comedians, are kind of funny as their characters, pathetically try and fail to not be terrible. “Why do you guys have to ruin everything?” quips Sam Richardson after Cassie reveals she is in fact not intoxicated.

When you think you know what Promising Young Woman is, it changes into something else; one moment it is candy colored bliss, and the next it’s every woman’s worst nightmare. Although some might deride this as tonal whiplash, it speaks to Fennell’s directorial strength as a shape shifter, especially when you enter the unexpectedly darker third act.

Fennell’s script for Promising Young Woman was featured on the 2018 Black List.

Dir: Emerald Fennell

Prod: Emerald Fennell, Margot Robbie, Ben Browning, Tom Ackerley, Ashley Fox, Josey McNamara

Cast: Carey Mulligan, Bo Burnham, Alison Brie, Adam Brody, Connie Britton, Jennifer Coolidge, Laverne Cox, Max Greenfield, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Sam Richardson, Molly Shannon

Available at: US and UK Cinemas (April 17th 2020)