I am going to start right off the bat by saying that I want to discuss this movie in more detail than I normally do with movies…but I will refrain from doing so.
I am someone who feels it is best to go into most movies as blind as possible, especially if I feel the experience would benefit more if you go into something cold rather than with the prior knowledge of eventual twists and turns in the plot.
Unfortunately, I had a lot of PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN spoiled for me prior to seeing it thanks to coming across a small review someone wrote without warning that they were going to discuss spoilers. The good news is there was a certain key moment that didn’t get spoiled for me and I am very glad that was the case.
PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN seems to be a film that is going to divide people whether that be its subject matter, how chooses to paint the content in terms of genre-bending, and also how it chooses to wrap up the story in the final third of the film.
I think it is going to be very interesting how this film performs during the award season this year. It is already doing fairly well with the regional critics awards but will a black comedy thriller with a candy pastel aesthetic end up translating to major Oscar buzz?
I think it can do it.
I also feel like the win by PARASITE last year opened up so many doors for the kinds of films that can pull off a Best Picture win, but PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN feels even more radical in some ways despite the fact PARASITE was a foreign film.
PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN was written and directed by Emerald Fennell, who was recently the showrunner for season 2 of KILLING EVE while also being a frequently popular actor in the UK on such programs as CALL THE MIDWIFE and even more recently portraying Camilla Parker-Bowles in season 4 of THE CROWN.
Fennell’s film debut is bold and distinctive and it will polarize many….
It pretty much won me over.
The film follows Cassandra ‘Cassie’ Thomas (the truly underrated Carey Mulligan), a 30 year old who works at a coffee shop and still lives at her parents’ home. We soon discover that she once attended medical school and had promise (wink wink) in her quest to become a doctor. Things took a rather tragic turn when one of her friends faced a rather brutal sexual assault and no one believed her…and this led Cassie down a darker path emotionally. After dropping out of medical school, she seems to devote her life more to luring men into her life only to demean them when they try to take advantage of her sexually. Her hook? She acts like she is on the verge of blacking out from drinking which only causes “nice guys” to swoop in with ulterior motives. Things get a little more complicated for her when a former medical school classmate of hers randomly enters her life again and shows a genuine romantic interest in her which she isn’t sure how to take at first.
My admiration for this film comes with a certain caveat because I can easily see why some might be turned off by it or why they may not connect to it on an emotional level. I found myself very intrigued by Cassie and it goes without saying that Fennell deserves a lot of the credit, but Carey Mulligan is a revelation here.
I have been a big fan of Mulligan’s ever since I saw her in 2009’s AN EDUCATION in which she was robbed of an Oscar due to the extremely bizarre push that season where Hollywood seemed overly desperate to reward Sandra Bullock for that pathetic and mawkish white savior movie in which she didn’t really do anything.
She has extreme versatility in all of her performances but I do feel like her work as Cassie could be a career best. Her energy in this movie is something of a steady rumble and while it may be a cliche to say, I do feel like she disappears into this role. It is truly hard to believe this was the same woman who played Jenny in AN EDUCATION or that I saw live as Kyla in David Hare’s SKYLIGHT. Also, I feel like her look in the picture below in which she is posing as a stripper named Candy is on par with becoming iconic.
Surrounding Mulligan is a solid ensemble but I wouldn’t say that any of them quite match Mulligan’s intensity or bravado. Bo Burnham plays Ryan, her doctor love interest and he does a good job at balancing what could be considered a “Rom-com” character that ends up getting placed into a darker orbit than he expected to be.
A lot of the other performances are relatively brief but still make solid impressions such as the hilarious Jennifer Coolidge and Clancy Brown who play Cassie’s parents; Molly Shannon, in a very subdued role, as the mother of Cassie’s abused friend (while it is never explicitly stated, it is assumed her friend Nina committed suicide); and also Alfred Molina appears in a small but pivotal role as the lawyer who actively sought to destroy Nina’s life but now feels immense guilt over the matter.
So, having said all of this, I do have to address one major factor that this film ties into:
The #metoo Movement.
A lot of the anger that Cassie has still lingers due to the fact that it seemed like the medical school in which she and Nina were attending were trying to essentially cover up the assault (or in their words more or less: “give the guy the benefit of the doubt” despite solid evidence).
The movie also does a good job at not always making us sympathize with Cassie because it is obvious that Ryan has nothing but good intentions for her and you wish that she would just open up to him….however….you GET her. She is fed up with the idea that men can get away with everything and it has seriously damaged her psyche…and in a key moment relatively late into the film, she discovers something that devastates her and for one of the first times, you see that under the immense anger and bitterness, there is a young woman who is simply devastated and destroyed because her friend was raped and she wants justice.
The movie will divide people, no question. Its tone is irreverent and dark while also being simultaneously bright and colorful, which I do feel it is always very interesting to have that kind of contrast.
And lastly, the ending was highly successful in my opinion for managing to achieve me to feel so many multiple emotions…and truthfully, the fact is despite what some of these emotions were, I still think the fact that I felt so incredibly satisfied was the most impressive. It has been a while that a movie left me just feeling so satisfied and yet still so cynical all at once.
Bravo, Emerald Fennell. May you please get Directing and Screenplay nominations.
RATING (out of 5 stars)
**** 1/2 (A)