Sometimes it’s the smaller movies you end up waiting around for all year, and sometimes it’s your most anticipated movies that end up surprising you the most. And when these things happen, it can remind a movie lover why they love going to the cinema in the first place. And every not-so-often, a movie can take your breath away and leave you utterly disturbed and disoriented, but desperate to discuss what you just experienced. Writer/director Emerald Fennell’s debut feature Promising Young Woman checks all these boxes, and then some.
Cassie (Carey Mulligan) dropped out of med school ten years ago due to circumstances we learn about as the film progresses. She has this habit of going to a bar each week, and pretending to be super wasted, and each time a ‘nice guy’ will always check on her, offer her a ride home, and then inevitably takes her to his place and tries to take advantage of her while she’s incapacitated. But, before these men can sexually assault her, she snaps back, reveals she’s sober and takes matters into her own hands.
The film is kind of vague about what Cassie does to each of these men. The trailer paints the film as sort of a #MeToo Death Wish, and that’s not what’s actually going on here at all, and what the film gives you instead is certainly more surprising and perhaps even better. We never see Cassie murder anyone. She has a little notebook where she marks off one by one – pages full of tallies, all in different colors, and it’s never explained what the colors mean. So, for all we know, this character is a serial killer, but that’s never what we focus on.
Promising Young Woman is a bleak and candy-colored tragicomic character study about a person who can’t let the past go, and why should she? This inciting incident from Cassie’s past has shaped the way she sees the present, and not just that, but everyone around her, and she’ll look at even the most well-meaning people through a suspicious lens. Ultimately this is never approached as movie about big conversations or even the Twitter clapback version of this story, as we’ve seen in films like 2019’s Black Christmas, but instead it’s a more quiet character piece about trauma and survivor’s guilt, and the limits of revenge. Sometimes there is no satisfying conclusion that can undo the trauma, and the script is less interested in how far will Cassie go, and more interested in why.
Carey Mulligan is giving a different kind of performance than she normally does. She usually plays the nice-to-a-fault girl, and that’s not who Cassie is at all. Cassie is beaten down by the aspects of her life that have caused disappointment, but also is allowing this trauma from her past to keep her from moving forward in life. This is absolutely the performance of Mulligan’s career, and she absolutely deserves the awards-season buzz she’s receiving. She makes you deeply care about Cassie’s journey from the minute we meet her, and even as the character descends further into oblivion, Mulligan makes her story totally riveting from start to finish.
Bo Burnham, the comedian who wrote and directed 2018’s standout Eighth Grade, plays Ryan, an old classmate of Cassie’s who shows up at her job and asks her on a date, and from the minute he lays eyes on her, he just looks at her like she’s the coolest person he’s ever met. And while I hope Burnham keeps directing, I feel like his phone will be ringing off the hook with offers for romantic leads. He’s very charming and has a lovely chemistry with Mulligan that gives this dark story some levity.
We have a slew of great character actors rounding out the supporting cast as well, starting with Jennifer Coolidge and Clancy Brown as Cassie’s worried parents. We also have Laverne Cox as Cassie’s boss and friend Gail, and it’s always fun to see her. We have a standout scene with Alison Brie as an old friend from med school with whom Cassie has unfinished business. There’s also Connie Britton, Alfred Molina, and Molly Shannon as important figures from Cassie’s past. And none of these people are around very long, but they all have important moments that leave a lingering sting.
This film is masterfully shot and edited, and it never wastes a second of its runtime. Cinematographer Benjamin Kračun deserves an Oscar nomination. I’m not familiar with any of his work, but like everyone else in this crew, I think you’ll remember his name moving forward. Same goes for composer Anthony Willis, whose ultra-dramatic score culminates in a haunting strings version of Britney Spears’ Toxic, that is instantly iconic. We also have sublime music direction here, and I can’t wait to get the soundtrack on vinyl. A standout use of music involves characters singing along to a mid-2000s Paris Hilton song, which actually works.
Promising Young Woman is among the boldest and most confident first features I’ve ever seen. So often in a director’s first feature, ideas can seem scattershot and Emerald Fennell’s script and direction are equally ambitious and icepick-sharp. It knows exactly who its lead character is and what it wants to use her to say. It’s a fast-paced comedic psychological thriller that will leave you shaken, thinking about it for days. You may not immediately find satisfaction in where we end up, but this is a film designed to sink its teeth into your mind and stay with you long after you see it. In fact, it took a week and a second viewing of the film before I could figure out how to write about it. In a landscape full of forgettable entertainment options that leave you with nothing to discuss after, it’s nice to know that complex, challenging and important films like Promising Young Woman are still out there. It’s one of the best films of the year.