PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN (2020)
Directed & written by Emerald Fennell.
Starring Carey Mulligan, Bo Burnham, Alison Brie, Adam Brody, Ray Nicholson, Sam Richardson, Timothy E. Goodwin, Clancy Brown, Jennifer Coolidge, Laverne Cox, Alli Hart, Loren Paul, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Gabriel Oliva, Bryan Lillis, Francisca Estevez, Lorna Scott, Connie Britton, Casey Adams, Vince Lozano, Molly Shannon, Max Greenfield, Chris Lowell, Mike Horton, Steve Monroe, Angela Zhou, Austin Talynn Carpenter
Find out more about this film here!
I understand I’m a dude saying my two cents about a feminist film. Many will immediately scoff at any criticism I have for PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN, saying this film isn’t for me and instead immediately write off my opinion if I don’t shower the film with praise for being a bold and brave statement about a woman taking on the patriarchy and lashing out against abusers. PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN is indeed a film about that. It’s not perfect, but it’s a very good film. While I have been vocal in past reviews about films such as this, I’ve done so, particularly in my SHADOW IN THE CLOUD video, because the film was stupidly written and simplistic in its hamfisted way of handling feminist themes. PROMISINIG YOUNG WOMAN is definitely not that.
Carey Mulligan plays Cassandra, a very damaged young woman who acts stone cold drunk in bars to lure in predatory men to try to take advantage of her only to dole out shame, retribution, and payback. Cassandra was, as the title states, a promising young woman who dropped out of med school a year ago after her best friend was gang raped by her classmates—a trauma that eventually led her to take her own life. This left Cassandra alone and angry with the burden of knowing her friend’s story and feeling a burning desire for revenge. It’s been a decade since Cassandra dropped out of school. Since then, she has been living with her parents (Clancy Brown and Jennifer Coolidge) and working at a dead end job at a coffee house with her equally bored manager (ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK’s Laverne Cox). It’s left vague how many barstool Romeos Cassandra has shamed through the years and Cassandra doesn’t seem to have an endgame in sight. That is, until one of her former classmates Ryan (Bo Burnham) happens into the coffeeshop one day and asks her out on a date. Things are beginning to look up for this damaged soul, but has Cassandra gone past the point of no return?
Now, PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN is not a perfect film. There are a lot of things left vague. I imagine that there was once a much darker version of the script that went to places that are truly horrific. I do feel that these dark places were softened mainly for the viewer to identify, sympathize, and root for the lead. We never know what happens to the various guys who end up in Cassandra’s clutches. Does she kill them? Does she neuter them? Does she wreck up their fancy places and take a golf club to their CD/DVD collection? We never see what happens. A few times, we do witness Cassandra “de-masking” while the man is trying to take advantage of her believing her to be drunk. After she makes the big reveal, she gives the letch an earful by lecturing them. But while this tactic might work on some of the guys, you can only poke the bear so many times before that bear swipes back and putting herself in that situation, alone with a guy with already questionable morals, might end violently and not on the side of female empowerment. Throughout this film I couldn’t help but think of LOOKING FOR MISTER GOODBAR, a different kind of film where a woman keeps going out alone to bars on dates, ending with one horrific night. Though I wasn’t hoping for it, I was scared for Cassandra as she scolds these creeps that one night she would find someone who isn’t going to feel shame but rage.
But none of that happens. Cassandra is given the pulpit to preach to her brothers and sisters in the audience who want to see dudes shamed, emasculated, and shown as the monsters that they are, but I feel PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN is going for something much deeper than that. In many ways, this is a female version of JOKER—a character study of a deeply flawed woman. Cassandra is a fascinating character, an every person, but one that, like Arthur Fleck, is the product of a society that failed her. But I guarantee those same critics who panned JOKER for being problematic and misguided will be lauding PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN for telling the same type of tale. For Cassandra, woman are supposed to go to school, get educated, get good jobs, and live their best lives. Cassandra was attempting that, but when society failed her best friend, her life crumbled and she haphazardly put it back together with a few pieces missing and in the wrong place. While Cassandra is doing things some women might want to do like take a tire iron to a jerk male driver’s windshield and threaten to chop the dick off of someone she confronts, the movie never shies away from showing how horrible her life really is. For that, I think this is a brave film. This could have been a BIRDS OF PREY, where violence to the patriarchy is rewarded with selfies, cool clothes, and bunches of BFFs to giggle with. Instead, it is a story with real world ramifications and while there are plot holes leading up to a sad climax to this film, the guts to deliver said outcome are quite ballsy in this day and age.
No, PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN isn’t a fairy tale and things don’t end all hunky-dorey-like. It reminds me of SCARFACE, where the film serves as a How-To manual for morons who can’t sit through the whole film to see where the life of crime leads you. PROMISINIG YOUNG WOMAN is going to have a lot of fans out of their cheering “You go, girl!” for the wrong reasons. Yes, Cassandra is attains some kind of power, but that power has corrupted her. Or more accurately, Cassandra’s addiction to that power corrupted her. Up to a point, this movie could be the type of film that glorifies the violence and props its criminal lead up to be the hero, but when was the last time you’ve seen a hero hear the words, “You’ve got to grow up.” That’s what one key character says to Cassandra and it’s one of the most important lines of the movie. It leaves Cassandra at a turning point where she is forced to decide between leading a happy life and forgetting the past or continuing to be stuck in a cold and bitter form, hating the world, and resenting others for being happy, social, and normal. And stuck Cassandra is. From her hairstyle to her rainbow painted fingernails, from her coffeehouse job at age 30 to her still living in her childhood room with her parents—Cassandra is not a role model. She’s a grown child with a simplistic sense of right and wrong. She’s someone to be pitied and PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN isn’t afraid to show that.
PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN sets out to point the finger at guys who take advantage of women. It does that successfully. But to me, that was the easy part. It’s easy to depict dudes as selfish jerks and abusive assholes. It’s been happening in movies, TV, and series for years and years. What it isn’t easy to do is bring to life a tragic, nuanced, and unique character, but PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN, Carey Mulligan, and writer/director Emerald Fennell do just that. Mulligan sticks the landing here and stays cold and hard almost all the way through this film. While she dolls herself up and tries to present herself as clever and snarky, she still has a chiseled, harsh, and dead look that communicates how walled in she really is, only giving brief glimpses underneath to give the viewer some hope Cassandra might have some kind of future. Fennell focuses her lens strictly on Mulligan for the entire time. She is center screen the whole film, often in an unkind light. A lesser director/writer would have found some way for Cassandra to walk away from the explosions like an 80’s action hero. But Fennell and Mulligan go for a much more logical, harshly realistic, and chillingly poetic way to wrap this story up and I feel THAT is the moral folks should take away from watching the film.
But they won’t. Gals have their version of Tony Montana now. Which is cool. But those who prop up those characters as icons ignore the important part of Tony’s story where he falls hard. And so does Cassandra. What makes PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN interesting isn’t the emasculation, the retribution, or the humiliation doled out by its protagonist, but the deft dissection of a flawed central character and the horrific path her actions lead her. PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN is one of the best movies I’ve seen this year. It delivers a monumentally tragic performance by Mulligan and an iconic character for cinematic history. Sure, it’ll deliver the cheap thrills for those fiending for just that, but most importantly, it delivers a soul-wrenching cautionary tale of vengeance and rage’s destructive power for those receiving it as well as those doling it out. This is a thinking person’s empowerment film that will promote strong, hard thought after watching for those capable of it.