“Promising Young Woman” (2020) Review

Dir. Emerald Fennell; Carey Mulligan, Bo Burnham

[3 out of 4 stars]

It is important to remember that the title of Promising Young Woman (2020) is a reference to Brock Turner, who, after raping Chanel Miller while she was unconscious in 2016, was referred to as “a promising young man.” It is important to remember this because it is easy to get swept up in the fun badassery of this film and forget the all-too-real impacts that sexual assaults continue to have while perpetrators too often receive only a slap on the wrist. This power dynamic is reversed, in a way, in Emerald Fennell’s directorial debut. 

Promising Young Woman opens with an intoxicated young woman — later identified as Cassie (Carey Mulligan) — slumped over at a bar, alone. A trio of young men at the bar tsk disapprovingly, saying things like, “They’re putting themselves in danger, girls like that” before laughingly adding, “She’s kinda hot.” One of them (Adam Brody) goes over to her “to make sure she’s okay” and offers to drive her home. On the way, however, he suddenly mentions that his apartment is nearby and invites her back to his place for a drink. She’s too drunk to fully respond, but she finds herself in his bed with an enormous glass of disgusting-looking kumquat-flavored liquor while he kisses her, responding to her mumblings of “what are you doing?” with “it’s okay, you’re safe.” It is only when she sits up straight and asks “I said, what the fuck are you doing?” that we realize she is stone-cold sober. Thus we are introduced to Cassie’s weekend pastime: posing as drunk at local clubs and going home with “nice guys” in order to mete out a little justice. She is traumatized and grief-stricken over what happened to her best friend Nina, which we learn about as the movie progresses. A 30-year-old med school dropout, she lives at home with her parents and works in “a shitty coffee shop.” When she reconnects with Ryan (Bo Burnham), a former classmate, and the pair start dating, it seems like the good news Cassie really needs — that is, until Ryan introduces Cassie to new information that sends her deeper into her quest for revenge. 

Promising Young Woman is a film that speaks directly to its viewers and forces them to confront their own biases about power, privilege, and morality. Most obviously, it screams in the face of any male audience members that have ever called themselves “a nice guy,” asking, “are you?” It’s like watching a chess match as Cassie carefully dismantles the men she goes home with, responding to their whiny cries of “What do you want from me?” and “It’s every guy’s worst nightmare, getting accused like that!” with a measured tone, asking, “Can you imagine what every woman’s worst nightmare is?” In addition, it flips familiar examples of the male gaze: Cassie stares down catcalling construction workers, and the film opens with shots of male crotches (hilariously, all clad in khaki) dancing at a bar rather than scantily-dressed women. But men aren’t the only villains in the movie that are called out. I also found myself addressing my own biases as I watched. Cassie is, at many points in the film, not a “likeable” character. She acts irrationally and makes decisions that I dislike or disagree with, and it was only when I realized that I was trying to rationalize her “irrationality” that I remembered that only female characters are ever rated for their likability. We root for male characters whether we like them or not, whether we agree with their motivations or actions or decisions or not, and rarely afford female characters the same respect and understanding. 

One of the most fascinating aspects of the film is its color palette, both in set and costume design. Cassie wears brightly-colored bubble shirts and multicolored nail polish with pastel ribbons in her hair. The set — especially the coffee shop — is accented with cotton candy-colored decorations, soft blues and pinks mixed with psychedelic pink light. It’s a choice meant to urge us to undermine Cassie. She often dresses in childlike clothing, wearing t-shirts with cherries on them and flowery dresses. Yet, she possesses apparently limitless reserves of strength and fearlessness, not least because she goes home with scores of young men alone while no one knows where she is. Even the men themselves come to see her as terrifying. In one scene, Cassie wears a multi-colored pastel wig and a big smile, while carrying drugs and a scalpel. Such costuming compels us to challenge our own assumptions about femininity and masculinity, what traits we assume and overvalue in each. It also means that the darker moments of the film pack more of a punch; underneath the visually sunny exterior and comedic moments is a bleak, depressing story about grief and trauma. 


However, the design also distracts a bit from the true underlying point of the movie. It’s easy to get caught up in the fun of the film because it is so entertaining. Watching it with my roommate — also a young woman — we found ourselves laughing and cheering Cassie on as we saw the tables get turned. It was only in the moments of danger, as strange men groped Cassie while she mumbled, that we felt the goosebumps pop and our hearts pound while witnessing a story we all know too well. I appreciate that Fennell gives us a loyal, funny badass to root for and lets us laugh along the way, but the dark humor that threads throughout the film also seems to gloss over the serious, lasting impacts of sexual assault. This is especially clear in the way that Nina is never heard from; instead, the effects of her assault are witnessed only through Cassie, who then becomes purely a vehicle for revenge on her behalf. I was left feeling just half a step short of the finish line. Still, there is much to love about Promising Young Woman and a lot to commend Fennell for, despite these reservations. Ever since watching it, I have continued to mull it over again and again, thinking and re-thinking how I feel about a particular character or why a character made a certain choice.

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