Review of Promising Young Woman
By: Jenna Sparks

TRIGGER WARNING: Mention of sexual assault and rape

Also, MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD

With the announcement of nominations for 2021's 78th Golden Globe Awards, we bore witness to some amazing nods (as well as some astounding snubs). One such film to be nominated for Best Drama is Promising Young Woman, and with good, nay great, reason.

To even begin to summarize the film proves difficult, because it doesn't really feel like a modern film that can be summed up in just a small paragraph. If you've heard of the movie but have yet to see it, you might be able to assume it's a revenge fantasy. You may also insist it's a film about an angry woman entrapping men. And neither would be wrong, but there is so, so much more to it than that. While it boasts the majesty of a 21st century Thelma and Louise, there's a strange, uncomfortable twinge of American Psycho tinted in pastel hues.

So, to keep it short, and to prepare you for spoilers, I will try to summarize the glory that is Promising Young Woman before diving into my opinions: Promising Young Woman centers itself around Cassie (Carey Mulligan), a medical-school dropout working at a coffee shop owned by Gail (Laverne Cox). We soon discover Cassie moonlights as a sort of vigilante. Planting herself in public watering holes as an inebriated gal in need of a hero to care for her, she waits for strange men to approach her, take her home, and attempt to avoid any conversation of consent before assaulting her, but not before she soberly proclaims her wits with the aim to deter these men from ever doing anything of the sort ever again (through mysterious means). It's only when Cassie meets Ryan (Bo Burnham), an old med-school chum, at the café that her origin story begins clicking into place. As tragedy would have it, the reason for Cassie's abrupt departure from medical school some seven years prior came on the heels of her best friend Nina having been raped and, ultimately, ignored, though the assault was witnessed by handfuls of students. We also learn that Nina is now dead, after an assumed mental health crisis, and Cassie feel responsibility for her failure to have been able to better help her friend after the assault. The resurgence of good-guy Ryan-from-medical-school reminds Cassie of all those complicit in Nina's assault and ultimate death. It's from that moment that she seeks justice for Nina.

That's the gist of it, and just the iceberg. Because, as it turns out, the film twists and shifts in such intricate and meaningful ways that by the end, you're unsure if you want to smile or cry. For me, it was both.

Let's start with the simpler aspects of the movie. First and foremost, the atmosphere is beautiful. There's nothing about the film that feels distant and cold, but it maintains an almost fairy-tale ambience. The usage of palettes to set the tones, as well as the cinematography in general, is an absolute wonder. An example of such could be rendered in a scene where Cassie is sat in the center of her bed, in the blanket of darkness, a cool blinking light coming from in front of her, blinking tediously and slowly. It's revealed, finally, she's watching a photo-slideshow of her and Nina and their decades-long friendship. There's something about the scene that sets the stage. The uneasiness of how the story will unfold while isolating just how much the memory of Nina lingers in every pore of Cassie and her narrative. While we never see Nina other than in photographs, her presence is huge, and that's entirely thanks to Carey Mulligan's honing of the character Cassie and imbuing the memory of a fictional person so deeply in her own character's personhood. The pain is almost overwhelming at times, but beautiful.

The soundtrack is also magnificent. While I might be biased because anytime the band Cigarettes After Sex is featured, my attraction to the presentation is immediately enticed. It's not only the usage of both indie and popular tracks throughout the film, but the score itself lends to the effect of the noir-esque vibe I previously mentioned. It's a stunning combination and the application is commendable. Perhaps the strangest, most alarmingly successful scenes was a goofy, romantic montage set to Paris Hilton's 2000's oddity Stars are Blind, and I loved every second of it.

One aspect of the film that had me giddy was the cast. I love Carey Mulligan and was eager to see her step into this femme-fatale role and, as it turns out, a role that she was made for. Her performance (and Golden Globe and SAG nomination for Best Actress-Drama) oozes the life of Cassie. There is not one moment that feels inorganic or forced, and each line delivery is a feat of absolute believability. To top off our cast, we also have the iconic Jennifer Coolidge and Alison Brie and almost cameo-length appearances by Adam Brody, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Connie Britton, Molly Shannon, and Schmidt himself, Max Greenfield. The anticipation to seeing these actors was definitely a bit of a joyride, and while I will always wish for more screen-time from Jennifer Coolidge and Connie Britton, their appearances, no matter how limited, were still delightful.

And onto Emerald Fennell, the writer and director. Again, I admit my personal bias. Fennell wrote and produced season 2 of Killing Eve, one of my absolute favorite page-to-screen series that, in my opinion, is perfect, the sophomore season especially. She is also no stranger to working in front of the camera, currently starring as Camilla Parker Bowles in The Crown. There is nothing about Fennell's work on this film that I can even imagine as being lackluster. I genuinely just can't think of anything she didn't do right. She took a subject that is by no means an easy one, a subject that cannot be glamourized or romanticized, or prettied-up, and she manipulated it in a manner that makes it so fathomably important and worthy of discussion and conversation. There are moments throughout that are startling, frightening, an even outright ghastly, but there is a maintenance interwoven that seems to serve us, the audience, with acknowledgment and understanding. This is a movie which talks about grief, death, rape, assault, victim-blaming, trauma, responsibility, and issues them in a way that reminds us this tale, no matter how outrageous it might seem, is by no means an isolated incident and hardly a fictionalized take on the subject. While I don't imagine much of the audience are the people that need to hear the message of the film, it's a deserved watch by everyone. Interestingly, the film takes its name from the 2016 trial of convicted rapist Brock Turner, who was regularly defended for his actions and referred to as a “Promising Young Man” after serving only 3 months in jail.

To wrap it all up, the film, to me, is an absolute win of a movie across the board. Is it a little hard to watch at times? Yes. But the movie was never meant to coddle its audience, though again, I reiterate, for any who might be sensitive to the subject matter, to take heed and be aware that this film does deal with very triggering subjects. But at the end of the day, the story reminds survivors of assault that the only person (or persons) responsible is the assaulter.

For me, it's absolutely a 5 out of 5 stars!

Promising Young Woman is available to rent on VOD

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