“Promising Young Woman”- Movie Review

It must be hard to make a movie with a message, especially when that message concerns a matter many believe is controversial (what isn’t nowadays?). I mean if you’re wanting to weigh in on something in particular without taking a strictly satirical route tone-wise, there’s the risk that your message will come off as too obvious, too hammy. If you focus too much on the message, all other aspects of your story may be forgotten. There’s a happy medium you’d have to reach if you want your voice to be loud and clear. The film I’m going to be talking about today finds that happy medium.

Directed, written and produced by Emerald Fennell (interestingly enough, the actress currently portraying Camilla Parker Bowles in Netflix’s The Crown). Carey Mulligan stars as Cassie Thomas, a med school dropout who makes it her mission to expose potential sexual predators. How does she do that, one might ask? By feigning drunkenness at clubs, allowing “nice guys” to take her to their apartment, then revealing her sobriety to them as soon as they try to get frisky. Things go from zero to 100 real quick when she learns that the former classmate of hers who’d raped her childhood best friend is getting married. The news motivates Cassie to embark on a quest for revenge, a quest to hold those who turned a blind eye to her friend’s assault responsible.

The first thing you might notice about Promising Young Woman is its sharp tongue and sweet-toothed aesthetic. it’s unabashedly feminist edge is made clear from the very beginning, and given the film’s forward approach to its subject matter, it’s also made plain that if you’re bothered by that, don’t let the door hit you on the way out. I personally am down for stories about women getting revenge on toxic, abusive, and/or predatory men. And that’s exactly what Emerald Fennell’s directorial debut is- a revenge thriller. It may substitute harsh grit for a more femininely playful color palette cinematography-wise, but the film stakes a claim in the genre by maintaining a high magnitude of intensity.

blonde woman reads a book
Courtesy of Focus Features via Facebook

It’s wickedly psychological. What’s great is that it’s message about the permeation of rape culture never feels forced. The script could so easily have slipped into unbearable territory. You know what I’m talking about- the kind of movie that forgoes good characters, a good plot, and good filmmaking in favor of force-feeding some heavy handed social commentary down our throats. Fennell’s treatment of the film’s subject matter is both forward and clever. It’s visual aesthetic keeps you hooked, with dreamlike cinematography that pops with candy colors and a great soundtrack to match. As a whole, Fennell’s sharp direction and attention to detail makes the bitter pill much easier to swallow.

Acting-wise, no star shines brighter than Carey Mulligan. I’ve always been a fan of hers. I don’t think she’s turned in a bad performance to date. Her role here may be the best she’s ever delivered. She’s fantastic at being both sympathetic and scary. You understand her character’s motivations, and her methods of revenge, although diabolical, are so deliciously diabolical that it’s hard not to be on her side throughout her plight. I also want to give some love to the male ensemble cast- Chris Lowell, Adam Brody, Chrostpher Mintz-Plasse, etc. They each do a fine job of portraying different variations of the “toxic male predator” without coming off as cartoony.

If I had to pinpoint one aspect of the film that didn’t work for me is the ending, sort of. Without going into detail, there’s a surprising turn the film takes with one of its characters that took me off guard. I didn’t like it at first, the choice. But once I saw where the story was going and how the choice was being used, I softened up to it pretty quickly. Though after the film drew to a close, I found myself still feeling iffy about the choice. Even as I’m writing this, my mind is going back and forth on whether or not it was a good call on Fennell’s part. Regardless of whatever conclusion I come to, this issue is minor at worst. It doesn’t detract from the overall viewing experience.

The most promising thing about Promising Young Woman is its director, Emerald Fennell. Her strong direction, coupled with a clever script and great acting, is what gives the film such a unique and memorable personality. It’s a tense, psychological thriller that satisfies on multiple levels. If you happen to catch it somewhere, whether in theaters, on a streaming platform, whatever, don’t let it slip on by. Give it a watch. It’s worth your time. Personally, it has made me interested to see what the future holds for Fennell. If she wants to stay on the dark comedy train, I definitely would not be opposed. 

Cosmic Grade- 4.3/5 Stars

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