It’s funny to say, but the pandemic may have actually helped the new dark comedy PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN. Originally scheduled to be released on April 17, it had to be pulled due to the theater closures caused by COVID-19. It’s now to be released on Christmas Day, the perfect elixir to all the holiday sweets being served up all month long, as well as closer to award season for it to register as a top-of-mind contender. Most importantly, pulling the film gave its marketing department at Focus Features time to reconsider the ad campaign for it. The first trailer and posters were clever, but they painted it as almost a Harley Quinn-esque farcical revenger, something it simply isn’t. (Ironically, Harley herself, Margot Robbie is one of the film’s exec producers.) Writer/director Emerald Fennell’s film is a much more serious take on vengeance, one told with an utterly unpredictable narrative, surprisingly rich and nuanced characters, and superb performances from its entire ensemble.
All that makes PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN one of the year’s very best films. It’s also one of its most indicting, taking aim at rape culture and our society that still coaxes it along. The film works as a black comedy, but at times it conjures the best of horror, thrillers, and political dramas. The story concerns Cassie Thomas (Carey Mulligan), a once-promising college student until a mysterious event 10 years ago derailed her med school trajectory. What occurred back then isn’t told to us in one fell swoop, no easy flashback doling out the whole backstory. It’s the first sign that Fennell is going to zig where others would zag. She’s after something more complex, smarter, and she wants our reactions to react in kind. Hers is a bold and daring work.
To go about her revenge scheme, Cassie’s developed a clever ruse. She pretends to be plastered at a bar or club and get a ‘white knight’ to rescue her. She knows that they will invariably take her back to their place to try to take advantage of her, but once there, she turns the tables on them. The first jerk we see take the bait is Jerry (Adam Brody), a nice-looking man who soon will be undressing her and pawing her all over without her consent. How this assault is resolved is something you’ll have to see for yourself, but suffice it to say, it’s not what you’d expect. Again, Fennell is confounding our expectations, and it’s thrilling in its twists as well as its wit.
Fennell is not interested in a revenge tale in the mold of I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE. The original trailer made it practically seem so, with its sharply comic cuts and panicking men, but no scenes in this film play out that obviously. Not only will the twists of her plotting surprise and delight, but so will the much more complicated characters at play in the fields.
Of course, Fennell is indicting the frat attitude that “boys will be boys,” pointing the finger at men, even presidents, for their “locker room talk” and perennial sizing up of women as playthings. But she’s also scolding women here too, the type who often enable such chicanery. One such woman Cassie aims her rage at is ex-classmate Madison (Alison Brie) who gossiped instead of helped, and the PC dean (Connie Britton) who deemed the tragedy an example of “he said/she said.”
The film is certainly righteous, empowering Cassie to take down the guilty, but it’s stylish and fun too as her games play out. The candy-colored production design provides counters to the acid humor, the snappy editing keeps it rollicking along, and the retro pop soundtrack mixes irony in with its earnestness. And Fennell gets nuanced performances from every member of the name cast.
Carey Mulligan has always radiated intelligence onscreen, and here, she’s so fiercely forthright you can practically hear the cogs moving in Cassie’s conniving brain. She vamps like a comedy pro but never lets us forget the anger driving Cassie at every turn. The British Mulligan also does a terrific American accent, flattening her voice into droll sneers to make every one of her utterances a scathing critique. She uses her slim and petite body to remind us too that Cassie is physically at a disadvantage in almost every encounter with these lotharios, even though she’s going in as the agitator.
Clancy Brown and Jennifer Coolidge are moving as Cassie’s concerned parents, whereas most filmmakers would have the older adults be mere fools. Mom and Dad are smart and compassionate, just in the dark about their daughter’s shenanigans, and Brown and Coolidge make you want even more of such moral centers in their daughter’s life.
Filmmaker Bo Burnham gives one of the year’s very best supporting performances as Ryan, the old school mate whom Cassie befriends anew through a chance meeting at a coffee shop. The two have great chemistry together and could almost be in their own goofy rom-com, but I’m glad they chose this darker comedy instead. His stand-up years help him earn laughs consistently, but he mines the darker sides of his character just as successfully.
Clever too how Fennell casts people we usually cheer for onscreen as the douche bags Cassie encounters here. It’s not coincidental that “McLovin” himself (Christoper Mintz-Plasse) plays one of her potential rapists as Fennell is pointing out how we’ve all laughed at sexual deviants like his SUPER BAD character in the past and it’s actually pretty unseemly that we have. Sam Richardson, Max Greenfield, and Chris Lowell all excel as other good guys who are super bad too. These men may tell themselves they’re Cassie’s white knights but the truth is all they’re interested in is lancing.
PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN will startle, provoke, disturb, and get audiences talking. It might be this year’s ultimate water-cooler movie. There’s so much to think about, talk about, and chew over as the film offers no easy answers. The only certainty is that this is an incredibly compelling film and Fennell is clearly one incredibly promising filmmaker.