If there is one way to make a positive first impression, Emerald Fennell has certainly done it with her directorial debut Promising Young Woman. At first glance, this movie might seem like pretty neon lights and a bit of revenge fun, but it is much, much more than that. If by the end of it you didn’t find yourself uncomfortable, you might be an issue in the picture of wrongs Fennell so clearly paints.
Promising Young Woman follows Cassandra Thomas (Carey Mulligan) as she navigates her life of secrecy and regret. At first, Cassie seems like a burnt-out thirty-year-old woman who lives with her parents. But at night, Cassie performs. She pretends to be drunk to encourage men to take her home. Just as they begin to take advantage of her sluggish state, she reveals her sobriety and frightens them into obedience. While this sets up Cassie’s determined persona, her inspiration behind it is the real heart of the film.
This is a story of assault and manipulation, and it has a lot of potential triggers to be mindful of before watching. Movies covering such subjects are never easy nor comfortable, but that doesn’t mean they should be ignored. Promising Young Woman does an excellent job of explaining why.
The film tells its story in multiple parts. Quite literally, it distinguishes each important section of the plot with bold roman numerals that flash across the screen. At first, this tactic is a little confusing, because it establishes intensity without actually revealing what the true conflict is. As things slowly piece together, seeing these roman numerals becomes nearly nauseating. They begin to represent a new segment in the plot and bring forth fear for the new ways that things could go horribly wrong.
And that’s exactly what this movie does: incite fear. Not in the same way slasher or paranormal films might, but in a way that makes you question society as a whole (if you weren’t doing that already). It is fun and entertaining, but it is also shockingly straightforward. It presents us with a victim we never see on screen and makes us feel voiceless in defending her. In the end, that might be what the film does best: familiarize you with the silence and make it blatantly clear why it shouldn’t persist.
There are many scenes so infuriating it will make you want to wreak havoc on the characters yourself. Mulligan gives the performance of her life as Cassie navigates her way through a series of plot twists and betrayals. The film nails the subtle ways in which abusers/defenders can manipulate situations in their favor. It is horrifying to watch how many people, including those of authority, would rather side with the perpetrator than dive into the unsavory details of the crime committed. And in turn, it is mostly horrifying to watch because it’s an accurate representation of what goes unresolved daily.
By the end of the movie, you’ll likely feel nauseated and unsettled. Perhaps the real twist of it happens after, in the moments of reflection when you remember: this isn’t fiction. At least not entirely. This happens every day. It portrays an ugly and shocking real-life lesson in an overall incredible film. It will bring forth a lot of conversation, and perhaps a lot of self-evaluation. If you see yourself reflected in the characters, you might have to ask yourself whether or not that’s a good thing. -Avery Wohleb
Promising Young Woman will release on December 25, 2020.