Promising Young Woman kicks off in an amusingly campy fashion. The setting is that of an uptown bar. An attractive young woman is in an inebriated state with a batch of leery men itching to take her home. Surprisingly, the woman is not what she appears to be. She does go home with a dude named Jerry leading to an episode that he would remember for a lifetime. The woman is Cassandra alias Cassie (Carey Mulligan). She is neither a hooker nor a nymphomaniac. She goes barhopping every weekend for a reason.
Directed by Emerald Fennel, Promising Young Woman initially puzzles you with its genre-bending ways. It begins with profound shades of a wild dark comedy. Soon we observe the possibility of it slipping into the dysfunctional family drama route, thanks to the rough equation between Cassie and her parents. Within minutes, a charming romance blooms when Ryan (Bo Burnham), one of Cassie’s batchmates, shows up at her workplace – a coffee shop. While we slowly warm up to their bubbling love story, Fennel wants her film to be a bona fide revenge saga.
Now, here is the back-story: Several years after the passing of her best friend Nina, Cassie is still in a state of trauma. Following a severe act of physical violation by a group of men led by Al Monroe (Chris Lowell), Nina had to out of the medical school and was followed by Cassie. If Nina succumbs to the ordeal, Cassie is still reeling in her wounds. If her meetups with random men on weekend nights lack a specific agenda to seek deliverance, things change when she grows close to Ryan.
Cassie and Ryan make a beautiful couple who make us want more of their romantic moments in an otherwise violent plot. We harbour a need to have them walk down the aisle. Moreover, Ryan is the quintessential eligible man who works as a surgeon whereas Cassie is a cold mess. We would want this relationship to work because it might probably do her some good. The shift in the story (and the screenplay’s tonality) occurs when Ryan mentions Al – a name that exasperates Cassie.
From here on, Cassie meets several important people from her noxious past. If she exposes the hypocrisy of some, she chooses to forgive a few. Powered by a series of shockers, the writing is stellar in some of these encounters – especially the one where she lands an appointment with the dean of her med school, Elizabeth Walker (Connie Britton). However, the tone swings yet again here. Promising Young Woman becomes incessantly talky in these portions, at times veering into mild melodrama. Cassie is as confident as ever but she becomes a lot more obvious and less interesting than what she was in the first act.
Talking about the obviousness, I was not particularly enamoured with Ryan’s characterization as well as the emergence of a certain videotape. The sanitized method in which Promising Young Woman links Ryan to Cassie’s revenge plot makes for a minor mood kill. However, the film gets back on its feet almost immediately as it waltzes royally into an insanely exciting finale. The cinematic liberties taken are on point and Fennel earns a crackling victory as the end credits roll.
Promising Young Woman is no ordinary revenge fantasy. With its focus sharply on the rampant rape culture, Fennel makes sure to explore psyches and the indoctrinated belief systems of its characters – both men and women. The conclusion it reaches is how the blame unanimously is on the victim. If the perpetrators bail themselves out on accounts of being ‘kids’ during the heinous act, the bystanders make a laughing stock out of the accuser. It is a familiar universe and Fennel tells it raw sans overt exposition. We never see Nina or an image of what she must have experienced. There are no courtroom battles or lamenting parents. In fact, Nina’s mother has moved on and she wants Cassie to do so too. It is a telling sight when we see the woman shutting the door on a devastated Cassie.
The writer in Fennel also has a balanced take to offer on the ‘nice guy’ paradigm. If she casts Ryan as a warm, loving pediatrician who dances gaily to a Paris Hilton pop number in public, we see another man who repeatedly echoes, “I’m a nice guy”. He might as well be one, you know, as per the decrees manifested by the society. Gender privilege enables him to assign his questionable actions as a mischievous byproduct of the said surface-level niceness. These men and their audacity are seldom questioned as the characters perceive it all as an organic part of the power structure.
If the writing is razor-sharp and sensitive, Emerald Fennel also displays flashes of being a formidable filmmaker. One observes how Promising Young Woman is a bright, colourful film. If Cassie paints her perfectly manicured nails in vibrant colours (often complimenting the multi-colored walls, cupcakes at her workplace, and a bunch of other props), the editing and cinematography are decidedly stylized. At times, its snazzily girly exterior makes a confusing blend with the crucial dark episodes that form the film’s mainstay. We see a slew of gorgeously staged scenes that make tremendous use of spaces, props, and ambient light. However, there a few which stand out independently but stick out from the rest of the film. An example is when Madison (Alison Brie) lands up at Cassie’s place to drop off an important asset. The scene, complete with Victorian furniture, symmetric frames, and dressy props could well be from Marie Antoinette or Mary Queen of Scots provided the characters were to dress differently. Anyhow, complaints such as this are inconsequential if we look at the larger cause the film serves. Promising Young Woman pays a giant service to the ‘Me Too’ movement that has stirred the world for the right reasons.
Carey Mulligan, who has always been a capable actor, gets a substantial opportunity to display her mettle as a sober yet ferocious leading lady. As she boldly fields every scene in the film, we feel every ounce of the anger Cassie breeds within. It is a thoroughly engaging performance deserving of nominations if not the actual awards. Sharing a life-like camaraderie with Mulligan is Bo Burnham who is flawless as Ryan. Be it in the mushy romantic scenes or in the one with the detective towards the end, the actor is a revelation with his reflexes and expressions. If Alison Brie shines in a brief role, Chris Lowell sparks terror in a crucial extended sequence.
Not a genre film in any way, Fennel constructs a savagely feminist story in her directorial debut. While it needs to be seen how the public would take to its unusual climactic jolt, the screenplay astutely connects the dots as Promising Young Woman closes – making the unexpected twist worthwhile. Powered by a stupendous central performance and a fine understanding of womanhood, the film throws light on good female friendships. Fennel asserts how every woman ought to shoulder each other by not giving into the rules pronounced by the male-deifying society. At some point, Promising Young Woman stops being a chronicle of abuse as it effectively questions our social conscience besides provoking us to re-evaluate our morals. A riveting fare in every sense of the word, one only wishes how Fennel’s film was a little more consistent – tonally, visually, and emotionally.
Author at Filmy Sasi