Promising Young Woman

Promising Young Woman ★★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

During my senior year in college, I was appointed to a role to provide educational programing to fraternities about all kinds of pertinent issues. It didn’t escape my notice that there was a surprising lack of coverage concerning sexual assaults, something that tends to disproportionally affect Greek life. The feedback I received when I took this to the higher-ups was discouraging to say the least. To paraphrase, I was told that detailed information about what exactly constituted sexual assault had deliberately been omitted in seminars in the past, because apparently guys in their early 20s don’t like preventative finger pointing and get defensive. I was apoplectic, but it also gave me a new, far soberer understanding of the prevailing attitude at academic institutions and how far they are prepared to go to whitewash accusations to avoid negative press. In that sense, nothing this film showed me caught me off guard. 

“Promising Young Woman”, one of the ballsiest achievements to come out of 2020 and if there is any justice the one Carey Mulligan will finally win her Oscar for, is a ferocious and righteous reckoning for the overlooked and often deliberately covered up mistreatment of girls generally, but in higher learning in particular. Emerald Fennel, a favorite to pick up a nomination for her screenplay, primarily targets hypocrisy. It begins with the opening scene on a dance floor, with the camera suggestively and decidedly absurdly zooming in on guy’s body parts as it would typically for women. That’s where we meet Cassandra Thomas, who goes to bars at night pretending to be plastered, lets herself get taken home by seemingly helpful guys and teaches them a lesson when they take liberties with her. It’s a story that has played out too often in too many places. Guy sees inebriated girl, thinks she is an easy catch, brings her back to his place, has his way with her and is shocked the next day when she doesn’t recall what happened and is appalled by what took place. The excuses guys make are always self-serving. How could I have known? She seemed into it. Why is she even going to bars if she doesn’t want to get picked up? It’s totally her fault if she dressed up seductively. The truth is simple. There are rules, simple and clear rules that are easy to follow for guys who don’t treat social settings as hunting grounds to get laid. And “Promising Young Woman” spells them out in way that is as upsetting as it is cathartic. Cassie is vicious and watching her rip people to shreds who think they can talk their way out of their culpability is immensely satisfying.

Patrolling the clubs has taken a toll on her emotional health however. She has become mistrustful and standoffish, dropped out of medical school and spends her 30th birthday unwrapping a suitcase gifted to her by her parents who are intent on getting her to move out and start her life back up. Just then she reconnects with Ryan, a pediatrician whom she knew back in school. Bo Burnham, who directed “Eighth Grade”, one of my favorite films of 2019 is among the biggest young talents in Hollywood to keep an eye on this decade. He is effortlessly charming and self-effacing. But that there are nice guys out there too is not a message that Fennell is interested in. After all, a frequent response to the #metoo movement was an instant denial of guilt by men who felt attacked by being lumped in with all the bad apples in their gender. Which is a telling response. Ryan seems like a decent chap. He treats sick children after all. And he is willing to acknowledge mistakes. But when he is confronted with something far more damning than his initial faux pas at the coffee shop when he is a bit too astounded that someone he attended med school with earns her living pouring lattes, all the excuses we have heard so often come gushing out of him as well.

There are some questions when it comes to the messaging here, mainly whether we should take Fennell literally. “Promising Young Woman” works best as a revenge fantasy, an outlet for the disgust we should all feel whenever another story like this makes the rounds in the news and the perpetrator gets a slap on the wrist, if even that. It’s certainly fair to debate whether Cassie moonlighting as an avenging angel is healthy and if putting your own life on hold to read others the riot act for their sins is the best way to move past trauma and survivor’s guilt. Ryan’s betrayal, while a fair acknowledgement that we all would be well advised to critically examine our past and whether we ever encountered a scenario where we could have done more, is a deeply cynical development that suggests trauma survivors would be well-advised to never trust a man again, because even the most amiable chap is sure to have skeletons in his closet.

And then there is the ending, which has plenty of detractors and I have read well-reasoned arguments for why it doesn’t work at all. At least we can all probably agree that the emotional range covered during the last fifteen minutes is whiplash inducing. The final image heavily suggests a moment of triumph, that Cassie, in spite of what went down a few scenes earlier, still won. It unequivocally doesn’t pull that off. For a while I thought that was because she died, but the more I pondered it, the more I came to the conclusion that that wasn’t quite it. It’s how she died. If you are going to end on a victorious note, don’t precede it with an agonizing three-minute suffocation scene that you did explicit research for by asking your father-in-law, a former police officer, how long it would take for someone to be killed that way. I hate that I’m in a position where I have to at least somewhat mansplain a film directed and written by a woman and why some of her creative choices send conflicting signals, but there’s no denying that “Promising Young Woman” is provocative. And I suspect that is exactly what Fenell was going for above all else.

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