Ever since it was first announced as one of the selections at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, I’ve been eagerly anticipating the opportunity to get to see Promising Young Woman from writer/director Emerald Fennell, and thankfully, it did not disappoint. There’s bound to be a ton of controversy surrounding the film, making it easily the most divisive project to be released throughout 2020, but I also think what Fennell and company have created with Promising Young Woman is truly one of the standout cinematic experiences of the year that might be a bit messy at times, but will definitely linger with you for a long time after. I haven’t been able to shake it for weeks now myself.
Promising Young Woman starts us off inside a bar as we listen in on a trio of guys doing their usual banter as they realize a woman (Carey Mulligan) behind them seems highly inebriated and unable to handle herself any longer. One of them (Adam Brody) offers to play her knight in shining armor, escorting her out of the bar so that he can get her home safely. But sometime during their shared ride home, he decides that what this woman really needs is another drink, and takes her back to his place instead. While there, he decides to take advantage of the fact that she’s barely awake, moving her to his bedroom, and setting his plan in motion. But before he can get too far, he soon realizes that not only is this woman not drunk, but she’s more than done with putting up with men’s bullshit. And in that opener, Fennell sets the course for what’s to come in Promising Young Woman.
Centered around Mulligan’s character, Cassie, Promising Young Woman provides us with some insights into the trauma that is plaguing its protagonist and what motivates her on her crusade to rid the world of douchebros who take advantage of women, especially those unable to consent or are in danger of being taken advantage of by male suitors. Cassie’s campaign is inspired by a horrific encounter had by her best friend Nina, something so awful that it caused Cassie to drop out of medical school and re-evaluate her entire life (the events surrounding Nina aren’t explicitly spelled out, but enough is revealed for audiences to be able to piece together just what exactly happened that became a catalyst for what happens in PYW).
Things get a bit more complicated for Cassie when she eventually reunites with a former classmate, Ryan (Bo Burnham), and eventually begins dating him, allowing the walls that she’s built in her life to come down for the first time in years. But when Ryan informs her that another classmate of theirs has returned to the States—one who was majorly involved with what happened to Nina—Cassie finds herself more determined than ever to complete her campaign of justice against those who wronged her best friend, which only complicates her relationship with Ryan, who is oblivious to his girlfriend’s secretive activities.
To say anything more about the direction that Promising Young Woman takes from there would be a huge disservice to what Fennell has crafted here. But the thing is, those final 20 minutes of the movie are easily the most controversial, and are worthy of a deep discussion to deconstruct those events, so I feel torn that I can’t really dig into that aspect of the film more, because there is so much to talk about there. What I can say is that while I understand why people might be disappointed or take issue with Promising Young Woman’s conclusion, I appreciated the sheer ballsiness behind it, and I think there’s a harsh reality that the PYW conclusion reflects that feels sadly authentic and genuine (even if Fennell’s approach to the material is often heightened and darkly comedic). So even though those moments may not have been what we were expecting to see out of Promising Young Woman, Fennell’s commitment to veracity in those moments is what I appreciated about it as not only a viewer, but as someone who has had to work through her own issues that relate to the film’s subject matter as well.
Promising Young Woman is truly an ambitious debut feature film from Fennell, who taps into the frustrations of the female experience with a tangible ferocity that ripples throughout her sharply written script. There are a handful of wildly unexpected tonal shifts that drive the material of PYW, but those bold swings from Fennell feel right in line with the film’s protagonist, who is also unyielding, impetuous, and unpredictable throughout this story. Fennell and cinematographer Benjamin Kracun infuse Promising Young Woman with a pop palette soaked in bright colors and pastels, which only adds to the film’s unique sensibilities, and PYW’s soundtrack is utterly fantastic (there’s a string arrangement of Britney Spears’ “Toxic” that gave me chills when it hit).
Anchored by a phenomenally transformative performance by Mulligan that deftly maneuvers between camp and heartbreak with the greatest of ease, Promising Young Woman feels like a defiant coming out party for Fennell as a director who isn’t looking to play by anyone else’s rules. And honestly, if PYW is indicative of the direction she wants to take as a filmmaker, sign me up for whatever story Fennell wants to tell next. I haven’t been this frustrated (in a good way) and enthralled by a film like this in quite some time, which only proves that we need voices like Fennell’s out there challenging audience’s expectations the way that she does here with Promising Young Woman.
Movie Score: 4/5