Cassie Thomas (Carey Mulligan) works in a coffee shop, but she hates it. She is in her 30s and lives with her parents (Jennifer Coolidge and Clancy Brown), who hate it. Once a promising med school student, Cassie spends her nights prowling bars, pretending to be hammered, unable to walk straight, let alone think, waiting for that one ‘nice guy’ willing to take her home, to his not hers, and teach them a lesson. Stuck in the past thanks to the assault of her best friend, a chance meeting with an old med school classmate Ryan (Bo Burnham) opens up two glimpses of her future, one where she attempts to move on, the other a look at the kind of revenge she has dreamed of at every club she visits. What is painfully obvious for Cassie and everyone around her is she can’t deny her own intelligence, ability and searing personality doing the same thing day in day out.
Promising Young Woman, the feature debut for writer/director Emerald Fennell is a film torn much like Cassie in opposing directions, be it in how it handles its delicate subject matter or how it tries to fold in dry wit into a film that finds itself dulled by the laughs that the are ‘necessary’ to make the darker sides of this story tolerable. Mulligan and Fennell make a incongruous pair, with Mulligan tapping into a kind of primal rage while also embracing a spiteful intelligence woman have been chastised for even daring to exhibit, almost as if being smart and possessing any kind of femininity is a movie trope solely belonging in 70s and 80s horror movies. Here Cassie is both emboldened by her intelligence and chastised for it. Just because she can do something doesn’t necessarily mean she should. It’s the same kind of impassioned and skillful writing Fennell crafted the second season of Killing Eve with but here it feels more purposeful but unfortunately, messier.
Its the kind of writing that actually lives up the condescending descriptor of complicated female character (surely just complicated character?) but Fennell’s direction is less attuned to the world she has described in a script that despite the humorous asides never loses sight of the darkness buried beneath it. Cassie isn’t a hero by anyone’s imagination but the floral colouring of her world lightens the tone to the point where you could be forgiven for seeing Cassie and the vampiric men she runs into in a different light. Despite moments of poignancy coming through as Cassie sits alone in her mother’s house, something made to resemble a dollhouse, a still life image she is frozen within, it comes at the expense of a darker tale, one deserving of the ending it provides.
While many will point to the film ending choices to how they see Promising Young Woman and ultimately if they read it as a feminist masterpiece or a misguided attempt at combating rape culture, this is a picture worthy of debate and discussion. Despite constantly tripping itself up, never clear on its own arguement, the misguided decisions Cassie makes along with Fennell’s sharp writing make for a compelling watch from beginning to end, regardless of how you read it in the long run. It is the unconventional nature of Fennell’s vision which ensures Promising Young Woman will be a conversation long after Oscar season and despite some genuine criticisms, one that is impossible not to discuss.
While not a film to enjoy, director Emerald Fennell’s debut is an unexpected and oddly refreshing one. Not only because of its content but also because of the mixed messages it conveys trying to provide a cutting discussion of sexual assault and the barbaric nature of rape culture, there is much to comment on and it is this audience involvement that Fennell expects of her viewers that ultimately makes her feature worth watching. While it misses the point and at times glamourizes its world for a lighter tone with colour and comedy it delves deeper than most films in search of answers. That isn’t to say Promising Young Woman is bad, it isn’t, but it also isn’t the film it sets out to be, too enraptured by style over substance, the look instead of the feel and while it has many glimmers of wonder, its masked by the glitter of bright colours and sly wit to really stand out in a film trying to be too many things and never settling on what it really wants to say.