A Focus Features Picture, Written and Directed by Emerald Fennell.
Some films manage to pierce their way through the zeitgeist and into peoples minds and discussions, and the only way that is done is by being something extraordinary, whether in quality, subject matter or delivery. This film is all of them and when more people have seen it, will become one of the most discussed films of the year.
Promising Young Woman (2020) revolves around Cassie (Carey Mulligan), a young woman who works in a coffee shop and who spends her nights pretending to be drunk in bars so that predatory men can pick her up and attempt to take advantage, and she can turn the tables on them at the last minute and expose them. She does this in response the sexual assault that cost the life of her best friend, and the complete apathy she finds in society towards victims, and her need to try and fight back against a system where it is viewed as a much bigger deal to ruin a man’s life if he is accused of assault, than it is the damage which is done to a woman who is assaulted.
For many it will be a particularly triggering and upsetting film, and it definitely doesn’t shy away from the difficult subject matter in any way. The film has been marketed as almost a feminist revenge flick, and while it does start off that way, it ends up far more nuanced and complicated than that, and people should be aware of that going in so that they are prepared for what they get. It tackles rape culture directly, and even more specifically looks at the ‘nice guy’ defence and the ways in which so many people and structures in society allow for this type of abuse and suffering to be inflicted with little consequence. At the same time though, it is thoroughly entertaining and is a genuinely funny film, with some great lines and moments of physical comedy. The fact that it is able to achieve this despite the subject matter shows what a uniquely talented writer-director Emerald Fennell (Killing Eve) is, and the singular vision she brings to every aspect of this film.
The soundtrack to this film is one of the best utilised and most entertaining I have heard on a movie in a long time, using remixes of certain songs and the original versions of others, most being pop classics by female artists, and giving them a resonant feeling. The way the songs are used in the context of the film is genius, and the absolute stand out is a montage style scene in a store where Cassie and Ryan (Bo Burnham) dance to Paris Hilton’s ‘Stars are Blind’, and it will stick with everyone for a long time when they see it.
This film rests entirely on the shoulders of star Carey Mulligan, with the subject matter being a particular heavy burden to carry, and there is truly no one better in the world to lead this movie. Mulligan is a rare talent, managing to imbue a steely and determined persona, while still showing us the pain and vulnerability this character has under the surface. Cassie is propelled by pain and suffering, and arguably has lost the person she once was in the pursuit of justice and revenge, and Mulligan manages to pull this off. She makes you root for Cassie to both get payback on the people committing wrongs, and also root for her to make personal growth and find happiness again, whilst also having you understand that it is not healthy the path Cassie is going down. Through all of this, she also manages to bring a humour and sarcasm that draws you into the character even more and makes her incredibly engaging. Mulligan should win an Oscar for this role.
The rest of the ensemble all have mostly small roles but are so smartly cast and really add to the movie in their own way. Bo Burnham is perfectly utilised, as are Alison Brie and Connie Britton. Christopher Mintz-Plasse and Sam Richardson are both utilised in situations that are far from comedic but they manage to add real humour to the moments, and Richardson in particular gets the biggest laugh of the film with a piece of physical comedy.
The final third of this movie is so engrossing, shocking and brave that it astounded me. Whether people agree with where it goes or not, it pulls absolutely no punches and feels exactly like the story Emerald Fennell wanted to tell. The final act with Mulligan in her ‘nurses’ outfit with bubble-gum hair’ (that is all the context I will give so I don’t spoil anything, but this has been heavily shown in the marketing) is so enthralling and leaves you sick to your stomach, and there is a certain shot of a ray of light appearing onto a body that is stunning. The final scene too, with ‘Angel of the Morning’ playing, elicits such a wide range of emotions, and it is such a crying shame people aren’t able experience it in a packed cinema.
Overall, the film is simply mesmerising and demands to be seen. It will cause huge amounts of discussion and likely will split people straight down the middle, and the discussion is truly important. In particular look for the views of women on this film, because the film is so singularly rooted in the female experience, that it is the opinions and experiences of women who saw this film that will prove the most important and relevant in my opinion. Any film that stays with you as long as this one does after watching it is something special, and it lingers in your bones for days after. Quite simply one of the best films of the year.
Rating = 4.5/5