Promising Young Woman
by Hope Madden
Emerald Fennell keeps you guessing.
In a riotous and incredibly assured feature debut as writer and director, she twists both knife and expectations in a rape-revenge riff that’s relevant, smart and surprisingly hilarious.
If you like your humor dark.
Carey Mulligan is flawless—when is she not?—as Cassandra. By day the one-time med student ignores customers from behind a coffee house counter. By night, she pretends to be obliterated in local clubs and dive bars.
Why would she do that? Well honestly, it’s because Cassandra’s life has lost its purpose and this is to a great degree the drug that numbs her. These opportunities to puncture the moral delusions of self-proclaimed “nice guys” who take her home provide catharsis. It’s like her own version of purgatory, as she forever tries to make amends for that one night back in med school.
And these moments are priceless as, one by one, Fennell exposes the hideous reality of gender norms and how little it takes for a man to be considered a good dude.
Mulligan is marvelous, giving Cassie the courage that comes from an utter disinterest in the opinions or well-being of others. And then a good guy from med school (Bo Burnham) stops in for coffee (in one of Mulligan’s finest, funniest scenes) and the stakes get higher.
Maybe she has a shot at turning the tables on those she considers responsible for this pain. Or maybe she’s found her one chance to put this pain behind her.
It’s a tightly wound script populated by spot on performances. Fennell has a gift for casting small roles with actors who can find the absurd humor and realistic horror of every situation: Jennifer Coolidge, Clancy Brown, Adam Brody, Laverne Cox, Alison Brie, Christopher Mintz-Plasse. But the cherry on this sundae is Burnham, who is quietly magnificent.
A pessimism runs through Fennell’s film that’s hard to ignore and even harder to criticize. But the film is true to the character of Cassie—a woman who’s profoundly dark and unforgiving but not wrong.
Fennell’s film is not a nuanced drama concerning rape culture. It’s not telling us anything we don’t honestly know already. It’s not a scalpel to the brain, it’s a sledge hammer to the testicles.
And why not?