Promising Young Woman (UK/USA, 2020)

December 23, 2020
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Promising Young Woman Poster

Promising Young Woman, the auspicious, audacious debut feature of writer/actress-turned-director Emerald Fennell (she played Camilla Parker-Bowles in “The Crown”), defies classification. Is it a dark comedy with thriller overtones? Is it a serious message movie presented tongue-in-cheek? Is it an exploitative revenge film that uses a flippant style to undercut the darkness? In actuality, it’s a little of all of these and, although there are times when the movie’s approach seems scattershot and some of the tonal shifts can be jarring, the production as a whole feels rambunctious – a perfect concoction for the #meToo era.

When we first meet Cassandra (Carey Mulligan), she seems like a familiar character – a 30-ish college drop-out still living with her parents (Clancy Brown and Jennifer Coolidge), without a boyfriend, and stuck in a dead-end job. She skates through her days without purpose and, at nights, she goes to bars, gets drunk, and allows herself to be picked up by guys who are looking to get laid by someone too blitzed to give (or refuse) consent. It turns out, however, that there’s more to Cassie than meets the eyes. She has a purpose and it’s tied to past events – events that led to her dropping out of med school and becoming a loner. As those guys who thinks she’s easy pickings discover, she’s always stone-cold sober and, after giving them a chance to do the right thing, she teaches them a lesson about preying on inebriated women.

It’s easy to see how this story could evolve into a fairly standard female revenge thriller but Fennell has more in mind than exploitation. While she employs some of the genre’s tropes, she provides Cassie with a deeper characterization than the typical “wronged woman gone psycho” stereotype. Although there are times when Promising Young Woman is humorous in a twisted, cutting fashion, it can also be uncomfortable because there’s substance here and we can feel the pain and isolation.

Working with such an ambitious agenda, it’s perhaps not surprising that a freshman director would encounter some speed bumps. The narrative progression is at times choppy and exposition is occasionally presented awkwardly (interjected into conversations that seemingly have little purpose beyond filling in the viewer on past incidents). The final twenty minutes are oddly paced and plotted (although, in fairness, they culminate with a flourish) – a slow wind-down telegraphing that something else is going to happen. (I wonder whether the movie might have worked better if presented in flashback with a voiceover narration.)

One could make a case that Carey Mulligan hasn’t been this good since Shame and she hasn’t been given a chance to command the screen like this since An Education (which earned her an Oscar nomination). She often plays unassuming secondary parts but, as is the case here, she can emerge from the background with a ferocity that’s all the more effective because it’s unexpected. Mulligan is surrounded by an effective stable of supporting players. Clancy Brown and Jennifer Coolidge play her concerned parents. Bo Burnham, the director of Eighth Grade, is Ryan, the pediatric surgeon who becomes a love interest but is linked to a dark episode in her past. High-profile actors like Alison Brie, Connie Britton, and Alfred Molina become focal points for a long-game revenge plot that has been percolating in Cassie’s mind.

It would be a mistake to either undervalue or overstate the message behind Cassie’s madness. The reason it’s so easy to root for her is that she picks her victims based solely on their predatory instincts. Sure, some may seem to be “nice guys” but they represent an aspect of male entitlement that, once exposed and confronted, makes for a satisfying moment – even if it is fantasy. Fennell hasn’t hit a home run with Promising Young Woman, but she has crafted something that’s more often delicious than unpalatable. The mixing of genres gives Promising Young Woman staying power.

Promising Young Woman (UK/USA, 2020)

Director: Emerald Fennell
Cast: Carey Mulligan, Clancy Brown, Jennifer Coolidge, Bo Burnham, Alison Brie, Connie Britton, Alfred Molina
Home Release Date: 2021-03-16
Screenplay: Emerald Fennell
Cinematography: Benjamin Kracun
Music: Anthony Willis
U.S. Distributor: Focus Features
Run Time: 1:53
U.S. Release Date: 2020-12-25
MPAA Rating: "R" (Sexual Content, Violence, Profanity, Drugs)
Genre: Thriller/Comedy
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1