“Promising Young Woman” is a Darkly Funny, Seriously Thought-Provoking Triumphant Tragedy

Posted on December 21, 2020


We cannot even begin to tell you how difficult it was to write this review. That’s not a whine, nor is it a mark against the film in any way. It’s just that Promising Young Woman, starring Carey Mulligan and written and directed by Emerald Fennell (who you may know as Camilla Parker-Bowles on The Crown), is a film of complicated emotions. It’s difficult to discuss the journey it takes you on without detailing the particulars of the plot, which we will not do here. By necessity, because you really have to go through that journey on your own, this review has to be somewhat vague. Looking at it from a different angle, this review was also difficult to write because we can’t deny that a story about female rage, rape culture, and the long-term damage a sexual assault can inflict on lives (plural intended) are themes best told and scrutinized by women writers. When we say it deals in complicated emotions, you really have to take our maleness into account, because there’s good reason for us to think that many women will walk away from this film thinking that everything about the story, every choice Carey Mulligan’s Cassie makes, is completely straightforward and makes perfect sense given the world as it is.

How you feel about the story and film is going to come down to how the last half hour of it made you feel; whether you can come to terms with some of the choices made and the repercussions of those choices. It’s complicated and messy and yet somehow it ends on a thrillingly triumphant, if unbelievably dark moment. All we can say is that the last five minutes are some of the most emotionally intense we’ve seen in any film this year. We’ve seen it twice and we still haven’t fully unpacked our feelings about what happens. But we can tell you this: Carey Mulligan is absolutely at the top of her game here, giving a perfectly balanced and nuanced performance of a woman whose confidence and extreme intelligence spills out of her effortlessly even as it’s perfectly clear that she’s damaged and stuck in a life that isn’t allowing  her to grow or move on or even accept happiness. Cassie is a 30-year old med school dropout working in a coffee shop with a boss that allows her to treat the customers with utter disdain. She lives at home with her parents (a surprisingly understated Jennifer Coolidge and Clancy Brown), who give her a suitcase for her birthday and wring their hands at her lack of direction and lack of a social life. Sometimes, she gets dressed up in homages to iconic Britney Spears videos, goes out to a bar or nightclub and pretends to be pass-out drunk. No one knows she does this — which is good for her, because when she does this, a “nice guy” will inevitably come over, offer to take her home, and bring her back to his place in the hopes that she’ll pass out quickly. She, of course, does not pass out. What she does is show each of these men who they truly are.

Writer-director Emerald Fennell has crafted a biting, thought-provoking story surrounding not only the effects of a campus party rape, but also the culture that supports and allows for such actions in young men; a world of toxic masculinity and complicit femininity. Both Connie Britton, as the dean of Cassie’s former med school and Alison Brie, as a former classmate who’d rather pretend the past didn’t happen while maintaining the right to pass judgment on it, have utterly excruciating scenes as Cassie forces them to examine their own actions and complicity. It’s also about how the respectability of marriage, career and parenthood bestows a pass on people who acted horribly in their youths and implies that there’s a deliberate inevitability to it; a culture that thinks it’s okay for young, well-to-do white people to be as destructive as they can get away with, so long as they come out the other end of their twenties with a wedding ring, a good job, and babies to show off on their social media accounts.

And it’s funny. We may have focused a bit on the heavier, darker aspects of the story here, but Fennell and Mulligan understand that righteous rage can be biting and cathartic, especially when the enraged is smarter than everyone else and obsessed with carrying out an agenda against an entire culture of complicity and complacency. If we have a criticism, it’s that the film doesn’t feel like it entirely worked its way through the things it was examining and critiquing. As we said above, there are choices made – both on the part of the character and on the part of the writer-director – and some of them are clearly meant to be discussed and interpreted, but a choice was made to spend 2/3 of the film inside the mind of its main character, to the point that you thought you understood everything about her, and then pulls away in the final act, letting her actions and choices play out without much examination. The audience is meant to navigate things that are largely unfathomable. Granted, there’s nothing wrong with leaving an audience on their own to work things out apart from what an auteur or artist might do to influence them. If there are shortcomings to Promising Young Woman, they’re not just minor, but completely understandable given the successful attempt to enrage, depress, provoke and inspire laughter all in the same film. A film of abundance and contradictions: triumphant tragedy, enraging comedy, confusing carthasis.




[Photo Credit: Focus Features]

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