WARNING: Promising Young Woman (2020) contains themes of sexual assault that may trigger negative feelings or reactions for some viewers, so please use your best judgement when deciding to view this film. And, if needed, please reach out and contact the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673).
You may know Emerald Fennell from her role in Netflix’s The Crown, or as showrunner of season 2 of BBC America’s Killing Eve, which is already an impressive list of credits for someone so young. But wait, there’s more! She writes and directs, too, and her debut feature, dark comedy thriller Promising Young Woman (2020), proves that it is indeed possible to wear many hats and still do the job(s) right.
This film, in a nutshell, is “every woman’s worst nightmare” come true. It tells a story we all (unfortunately) know–a “promising young man” sexually assaults a “promising young woman,” and all of sudden everyone is worried about what will happen to his reputation instead of what will happen to the girl he raped. Main character Cassie (Carey Mulligan) isn’t having any of that bullshit. No–she’s going to do something about it.
That “something” is pretty interesting: every week, Cassie goes out to a bar, pretends to be super wasted, and waits until a “nice guy” offers to help her get home.
…Except every one of those guys ends up taking her back to his place instead and tries to get…frisky with her. And every time, she snaps out of her drunken act right as they’re incriminating themselves, daring them all to tell her that they weren’t doing anything wrong. That they aren’t bad people.
That’s badass, right?
(There are definitely some underlying issues here. For starters, this is insanely dangerous, so don’t try it at home, kids.)
Cassie isn’t just doing this arbitrarily, though. The reason she is compelled to go to all of these great lengths is (interestingly enough) never actually shown on screen in the film: her lifelong best friend Nina who was raped and took her own life shortly after, derailing Cassie–who is now obsessed with getting justice at all costs–for good. Though it may seem odd never to show the driving force behind the main character’s actions in a film, there’s a reason we as an audience never see Nina–she lives on now only in Cassie’s mind, her story forgotten by everyone else.
Cassie, though, is hell bent on changing that narrative.
An amazing premise, no? I think so. Promising Young Woman intricately intertwines themes of justice, revenge, forgiveness, and letting go while driving home important points about the perpetuation of male violence that definitely need to be made in today’s disastrous social climate–especially in that scene between Al and Joe at the end (if you’ve seen it you know which one I’m talking about, ugh) and with the character arc of Cassie’s love interest, Ryan (Bo Burnham).
Diverging from thematic praise here, the cinematography of this film is also top notch. While Cassie may be a little off kilter at times, she’s often shown in a low angle, empowering her as an active character, a woman who knows what she wants and who makes her own (slightly questionable) choices. She is an avenging angel, shown to us in the scene in the coffee shop where her image is conflated with that of the Virgin Mary (skip to around 1:18 in this trailer if you wanna see what I mean).
Because some things really can have it all, the acting in this film is stellar, too. Carey Mulligan is a tour de force; she is amazing, outstanding, breathtaking, any possible good adjective you could think of, really. And Bo Burham! We knew he was hilarious, but who knew he could be so serious?! Not to say that he doesn’t have any funny moments at all–cue the Paris Hilton-“Stars Are Blind”-convenience store-karaoke sequence–because there definitely are.
Speaking of music, the female-led soundtrack is sensational, including songs from the aforementioned Paris Hilton, Britney Spears, and Charli XCX, to name a few–exactly the kinds of girls frat boys love to say are “asking for it.” Taking this kind of music back and making it empowering rather than degrading for women is genius and fits the tone of this film exactly–we can like pop music and not be ditzy, okay? Those two things aren’t mutually exclusive, contrary to popular belief.
Overall, Promising Young Woman is a knockout directorial debut. It’s definitely an awards show contender–all of the pieces just come together for me. The writing, the cinematography, the acting, the music, the subject matter, all wrapped up into a perfect little bow on top of Cassie’s perfect little head. If this is just the beginning, I can’t wait to see what Emerald Fennell pulls out of all those hats she wears next.
Filmnetic Grade: A+
Have you seen Promising Young Woman (2020) yet? I can guarantee you’ll have “Angel of the Morning” stuck in your head for weeks after, so…maybe use your discretion (I’m totally kidding; please watch it right now).
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