Promising Young Woman
2020, R, 113 min. Directed by Emerald Fennell. Starring Carey Mulligan, Adam Brody, Ray Nicholson, Sam Richardson, Timothy E. Goodwin, Clancy Brown.
REVIEWED By Jenny Nulf, Fri., Dec. 25, 2020
The same day I screened Promising Young Woman, I went for a run. I usually go running in the early evening, in a safe neighborhood a short drive away. This time, while waiting and a stop sign for a few cars to drive by, a man catcalled me from his car. This had never happened to me before in this particular neighborhood, and suddenly I started brainstorming new areas in which to run.
It’s this kind of misogyny that Promising Young Woman wants to take down. When Cassandra (Mulligan) smashes the headlights of another man’s truck (who just yelled at her about her driving), I was reminded of my run-in a few hours prior. There are raw, relatable scenes dispersed throughout Fennell’s directorial debut that cut this deep, but the heavy weight is nearly shattered by Fennell’s stubborn determination to give Promising Young Woman the same edgy flair as Killing Eve, the TV series that Fennell hails from as a showrunner.
In fact, it’s almost as if Promising Young Woman was an elevator pitch written backwards: “What if Killing Eve’s Villanelle was out to get the patriarchy?” The final act is one of the worst offenders of this tongue-in-cheek hip edge, and with punchy title cards and glittery pop songs scattered throughout this candy coated film, there’s a tonal clash that doesn’t quite connect with the film’s heavier themes.
As a subversion to rape revenge films, it’s only halfway there. Mulligan’s Cassie is decorated in her best smudged lipstick, prowling clubs and pretending to be black out drunk to find men she can trick into a lecture. She never harms them, though: just scares them with her sudden sobriety. There’s something here in this setup that’s intriguing, but the lack of physical violence in this punchy drama is a bit of a letdown, and makes the setup for the final act feel that much more hollow.
Furthermore, Promising Young Woman feels clouded with its messaging. For one, Cassie is not a survivor of sexual assault – it’s her late friend, Nina, who remains just a name throughout the film. For Cassie, Nina’s sexual trauma stunted her life: forced her to drop out of school and lose her dream of becoming a doctor (and she would have been a great one, we’re told multiple times, because she’s the titular Promising Young Woman). Cassie taking on Nina’s trauma is a mixed bag of white feminism, and dilutes the power of what Fennell is really trying to achieve with her film: the dismantling of “the nice guy” trope.
Fennell’s best writing here revolves around Burnham’s character, Ryan. From his first date with Cassie where they “accidentally” find themselves outside his apartment, to his reaction from running into Cassie when she stumbles out of a bar with another man, Ryan always puts on the good guy grin as he gaslights and manipulates. It’s a sublime performance from Burnham. The gross fact is, there will be a lot of men championing Promising Young Woman when it comes out, and what’s troubling is that it will be hard to see who out of the bunch are Ryans who are convinced they are still “the nice guy.” In this way, Fennell’s film feels so rewarding, repulsive, and relatable. But in others, it unfortunately slings its punches hard and misses.