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Review: Promising Young Woman – “Shocking and provocative”

Carey Mulligan stars as “Cassandra” in director Emerald Fennell’s PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN, a Focus Features release.
Credit : Merie Weismiller Wallace / Focus Features

“You know they put themselves in danger.”
“That is just asking for it.”
“But she was drinking.”
“If you have a reputation for sleeping around, who will believe you?”
“None of us want to admit when we’ve made ourselves vulnerable.”

These are all quotes from characters in the film Promising Young Woman. Sound familiar? The unfortunate fact of the matter is that they probably do, because if a woman is the victim of harassment or assault these are some of the things that might be uttered to divert blame. These excuses exist alongside misogynistic ideals that a woman must have ‘done something’ to cause an assault, instead of blaming the perpetrator for their abhorrent behaviour. In writer-director Emerald Fennell’s exceptional feature debut, she examines this alongside many issues that the #MeToo movement has highlighted, and that women have been dealing with for much too long. Part dark comedy, part thriller, part cautionary tale perhaps for some, Promising Young Woman will ask you some pertinent questions while serving up some surprises along the way.

Nearing 30, Cassie (Carey Mulligan) is still living at home with her parents (Jennifer Coolidge, Clancy Brown) much to their dismay. She works at a coffee shop where even her manager (a brilliant Laverne Cox) tries to get her to leave for greener pastures. People look at Cassie and see potential, easy enough considering she was a former medical student. But while her day is spent in the light pastels of “Make me Coffee” she spends her nights in harsh, dark nightclubs and bars, pretending to be inebriated. She lures in men who seem like really nice guys until they take her back home, fill her glass a little too full when she clearly doesn’t need it, and try to take advantage of her compromised state. They don’t get what they expect though, instead becoming a number and a name in a little notebook Cassie keeps hidden that tracks how many men have learned an important lesson.

Things continue like this until she runs into Ryan (Bo Burnham), an old medical school classmate who has only fond memories of their college time together. They go on a few dates, and Cassie starts to slowly emerge from the darkness that has consumed her and her ‘mission’. But when Ryan brings up the names of some other peers connected to Cassie’s sudden exit from her med school class, she is re-energized to find closure and teach some of those involved what justice really looks like.

Carey Mulligan pulls out a career best performance as Cassie, a woman that outwardly shows relentless strength, but is also terribly vulnerable and grief stricken. Working from a smart and unpredictable script from Emerald Fennell the two make an incomparable combination here.  Mulligan is well able to pull off fast paced dialogue that sends her would-be assailants cowering. She also has great chemistry with Bo Burnham (the writer and director of Sundance hit Eighth Grade), especially during a particularly charming lip sync scene they share. There is not one dark spot in the entire cast, which is rounded out with Alison Brie, Molly Shannon and Max Greenfield to name a few more.

While many will be quick to label Promising Young Woman a ‘revenge’ movie, the trailer certainly played it as such, there are a lot of layers to peel back here that make it so much more. Fennell has created a film that isn’t JUST about the power of revenge, but also the power of remorse and of forgiveness – both of others and ourselves. It certainly aims to feature a great deal of the #MeToo movement’s main issues, looking at rape culture, male privilege, harassment and the believability of women to name a few. Fennell also brings to task the women that, for whatever reason, excuse the actions of assault. Those quotes at the beginning of this article? The majority of them are made by women in the movie, demonstrating how much we all can really learn.

There’s a lot of ‘what ifs?’ that remain at the end of Promising Young Woman, but that’s where its power lies – in getting us to examine those choices that each and every character made and how they fit into an overall narrative and culture of blame, and of shame. What does an action of assault mean? Conversely what does INaction mean? This movie will probably make you angry, it will certainly be thought provoking, and maybe it’ll even make you feel a little empowered. It will also entertain you and keep you guessing in ways that were likely unexpected. You’re likely to have a personal, perhaps even visceral response to this film.  There’s a lot in Promising Young Woman that is shocking and provocative, but you’ll also never want to look away.

Promising Young Woman is currently playing in theatres (if they are safe to visit in your area!) and is coming to digital and VOD January 15th.

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