The Pitch: Cassie (Carey Mulligan) was once a promising young woman in medical school, along with her best friend, Nina. When a traumatic event involving Nina resulted in her suicide, it left Cassie jaded and enraged at the system that would protect those that hurt her best friend. Because of this, Cassie dropped out of med school, took on a dead-end job at a coffee shop, and now spends her evenings dismantling the system one “Nice Guy” at a time. However, her plans for ruthless vengeance alter when she crosses paths with former classmate Ryan (Bo Burnham).
“Toxic”: Writer and director Emerald Fennell’s auspicious feature debut serves as a scathing critique of rape culture and the privilege that protects it. To make the medicine go down easier, Fennell uses a bubble gum pop aesthetic, an earworm feminine soundtrack, and dark humor as the sugary vehicle for her provocative takedown. It makes for an engaging, highly entertaining, and genre-defying debut that employs a unique vengeance method to act as a more palatable metaphor for the trauma women endure post-sexual assault.
Each night, Cassie goes out to bars alone and behaves as though she’s too heavily intoxicated to make sound decisions, let alone get home safely. It’s bait for any man that would approach her under the pretense of acting in her best interest, only to take advantage of her when she’s unable to consent. That’s precisely when Cassie drops the façade and delivers a wrathful lecture. That’s it. Through Cassie’s modus operandi, Fennell holds a mirror up to the deceptive “nice guy,” but it strangely lacks teeth.
The more the narrative circles back to the initial inciting events and the larger revenge scheme, the more muddied Fennell’s criticisms become. She zips from talking point to talking point, inducing tonal whiplash along the way, but they lack a cohesive thesis. Cassie’s journey seems more about scorching the earth in hopes of decimating anything and everything under the broad range of rape culture, rather than precision. Even still, Fennell approaches lofty ambitions with confidence.
“Stars Are Blind”: Mulligan turns in a career-defining performance as Cassie, providing the heroine with unconditional rooting interest through all her ups and downs. Cassie is a deeply guarded woman with a constant fury simmering just below the surface, yet Mulligan conveys an ocean of depth in a character that keeps her pain as close to the vest as possible. She’s vulnerable, determined, broken, and even open to healing for the right person.
Mulligan’s tour-de-force portrayal is so phenomenal that it’d be easy to chalk this up to a one-woman show. Still, Fennell has assembled a cast of remarkable players that add even more emotional complexity. Burnham’s Ryan throws a significant wrench in Cassie’s plans, making for an endearing love interest. He’s prone to mistakes, yet the empathy afforded the character further muddies up the conversation.
Clancy Brown and Jennifer Coolidge play Cassie’s parents, both deeply concerned and confused by Cassie’s dramatic shift in personality yet handling it in different ways. Connie Britton and Alison Brie showcase how female privilege can help protect predators over accusers. At the same time, Laverne Cox gives audiences a glimpse into a happier Cassie that could’ve been as her coffee shop boss, while Molly Shannon pops up in for a critical character-building scene as Nina’s mom, begging Cassie to move on with her life.
“Uh-Oh”: Shannon’s small yet essential character reveals one of the film’s most glaring flaws; poor Nina has no agency in a story fueled by what happened to her. Her death occurs before the film’s start, and her entire identity is consumed by the event that irrevocably altered her and Cassie’s lives. The metaphor is clear, but that doesn’t make it any less messy or egregious.
Once Cassie barrels towards her endgame, the film shifts into a third act that’s guaranteed to polarize. When you think Cassie may be headed for a tidy, lackluster finish, Fennell instead sets a fuse to an explosive final act that will inspire think pieces and dissections for years to come. The specificity and truth offer a satisfying conclusion for this tumultuous and oddly infectious narrative, yet its implications, and unanswered questions leave a bitter after taste.
The Verdict: Through a distinct sense of style and riveting performances, Fennell’s debut is as bold as it is self-assured. Promising Young Woman eschews the familiar rape-revenge formula and injects a subversive female gaze, yet doesn’t cover any new ground that hasn’t been touched on already. A catchy pop film crafted around a series of rape culture talking points, Fennell’s scathing dissection of rape culture struggles against its ambition at times. For all the complexities of the topic, it’s tackled with surprising simplicity. Despite its inconsistencies and often tame indictment (until it’s not), there’s so much to unpack here that the discourse around Promising Young Woman will continue for a long time to come.
Where’s It Streaming? Promising Young Woman hits Premium Video On-Demand and limited theaters on December 25th.