Review: Promising Young Woman (2020)

Promising Young Woman. Directed by Emerald Fennell. Focus Features, 2020.

Premiere Impressions

         There is no film I have been more eagerly anticipating this year than Promising Young Woman. I have not been inside a movie theater in nearly one year, and I was desperately hoping I would get to see this movie on the big screen. Though the film was theatrically released on Christmas Day, my stupid conscious kept me from heading to the theater. Luckily, audiences can all now safely watch the film on demand—and everyone should. Immediately.

         Promising Young Woman centers on Cassie (Carey Mulligan), a thirty-year-old woman changed by the loss of her best friend, Nina. Once in school to become a doctor, Cassie now works a low-paying job at a coffee shop and lives at home with her disappointed parents (Clancy Brown and Jennifer Coolidge [Yes, that Jennifer Coolidge]). At night, Cassie goes to clubs, pretends to be intoxicated, meets a “nice guy,” and turns the tables on him once he inevitably tries to take advantage of her.

         There really is not a level of this film that is not pure fire and that speaks to the visionary direction of Emerald Fennell, which is even more impressive considering this is her feature directorial debut (side note: it’s both fun to write “her” when referring to a director and also sad that it’s rare enough in Hollywood that I have this side note). Like its main character, Fennell’s vision is confident, acerbic, and without concession. Promising Young Woman is uninterested in placating the masses with its messaging. This is a film where an enraged woman is celebrated as a hero. So many conversations in the #metoo era unintentionally redirect attention back to men when asking how we can work to make our boys better. Promising Young Woman creates a cinematic space for women to be at the focus of a conversation that most affects them.

         Obviously, Carey Mulligan is incredible. You know this going into the film because she’s Carey Mulligan. The level of nuance she brings to her character, though, is truly next level. During the “nice guy” sequences, the moments she snaps from performed intoxication to sober control are sure to incite “aww, yeah” reactions in audience members. As a woman carrying her friend’s trauma alongside her own, Mulligan expertly conveys the pain Cassie holds within through her defensive delivery and the subtle releases of emotion that occur throughout. At this point, I’m giving Mulligan the Oscar for Best Actress. Oh, also, I give out the Oscars now. The Academy and I worked out a deal. Don’t call them to ask about it or anything, though.

         In addition to Mulligan, the supporting performances inject the film with a range of realistic expression. Alison Brie and Connie Britton are fantastic in their roles as women who deny the truth. Alfred Molina plays a surprising character coping with remorse (his scene with Mulligan is one of the most resonating). Jennifer Coolidge and Molly Shannon both play against type, each demonstrating a range of maternal disappointment. Bo Burnham and Laverne Cox play to their specific strengths, lightening the film with charming dorkiness and witty attitude, respectively. For each performer, even those with only one scene, this film represents a career highlight—a testament, again, to Fennell’s direction.

Spoilers, queens.

         Going into the film, I was not sure just what Cassie’s method of seeking revenge would be. The movie craftily plays to those expectations after the first “nice guy” sequence with Adam Brody, in which Cassie walks home with jelly dripping down her arm. I will admit, I was initially disappointed during the “nice guy” sequence with McLovin where it’s revealed that she doesn’t kill them. However, the idea of Cassie drilling into each of the assailant’s heads with psychological violence is quite brilliant. There is not a single person on Cassie’s list that gets to walk away unscathed; each person now has to live with the feeling of “crazy,” that they certainly used to dismiss claims or signs of sexual assault in the past.

         It’s particularly poignant how the film uses scrutinization to dissect the cultural conversation regarding rape. The word “rape” is barely, if ever, used in the film. Instead, we watch as characters dance around describing a crime that would be so much harder to deny if they spoke it into truth. In no scene is this more affecting than when Ryan is confronted with his own past.

Spoilers over, queens.

Post-Screening Snippets

  • I think it’s time we bump Carey Mulligan up to True Queen™ status
  • Jennifer Coolidge is wonderfully restrained in this movie, but I still giggled when she was on screen because a) it’s Jennifer Coolidge and b) I just watched the “Jennifer Coolidge in Star Wars” videos on Tik Tok about 50 times
  • I don’t know if there was another movie in 2020 that had me vocally cheering for a protagonist like this one

The Final Tea

It is so rare to have a film not only live up to heightened expectations, but then also exceed them. Promising Young Woman is a visionary debut from Emerald Fennell, a gallery of expert performances, and an incisive exploration of timely themes. It’s unlikely I’ll be rooting for anything else on Oscar night.

GRADE: A+

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