By day Cassandra works at a coffee shop. By night she trolls the local bars, pretending to be intoxicated, waiting for a “nice guy” to help her get home. Invariably this kind Samaritan steers Cassie to his apartment to take advantage of her apparent drunkenness.
Some of them wrestle with their darker impulses a little longer than others, but the encounter always heads to the same destination. He just doesn’t know he’s in for quite a surprise.
Promising Young Woman is a thriller that has a lot to say about misogyny, sexual harassment and toxic masculinity. On its surface, viewers will be anxious to know why Cassie has become this vigilante of sorts.
What motivates her to place herself in danger to become a living, breathing cautionary tale for the man who decides to prey on what he perceives as her lack of inhibitions?
What makes the film such a memorable experience is its effortless ability to drill down into the stereotypes of victimhood. Every person who has seen a news story about a sexual assault and thought “Did you see how she was dressed?” or “What did she think was going to happen when she’s drunk in a bar at 2 a.m.?” will become very uncomfortable, very quickly, during this film. And that’s the point.
Promising Young Woman forces its audience to look past those snap judgments and see the realities of a world where women are so often seen as just objects of desire who are supposed to be subservient to the will of a man.
Promising Young Woman is a stunning blend of tones that really shouldn’t work — dread, fear, humor and romance. From its opening moments, the film embraces its sense of irony. Club music is pumping; strobe lights are flickering.
When the camera cuts to the dance floor, we don’t see half-dressed young women gyrating to the music. Instead, we see beer bellies, shirts half tucked into khaki pants and dad bods trying to attract the uninterested woman in the room – the familiar club scene as captured through a female gaze.
Even the songs that are “needle-dropped” into the narrative and the score are in on the dark humor simmering below the film’s surface. At one key moment (that can’t be revealed here), Cassie strides toward the climax of her vigilante campaign as eerie string music dominates the sound design. Then the viewer slowly realizes it’s a twisted rendition of Britney Spears’ hit “Toxic” – the perfect theme song for Cassie.
The ending of the film, set to Juice Newton’s “Morning Angel,” is one of the best final scenes of the year. It manages to be heart-breaking and darkly funny at the same time.
Carey Mulligan dominates the screen as Cassie. Her intensity nearly burns a hole in the screen. She’s brilliantly paired with writer-director-comedian Bo Burnham (Eighth Grade) who plays a potential real love interest for Cassie. He manages to find his way into her wounded soul, giving Carey Mulligan an opportunity to portray a softer side of Cassie.
The relationship makes the audience wonder if there might not be a happy ending out there somewhere for Cassie.
Promising Young Woman came out of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival with hype to burn. It lives up to the buzz. In a fair world, it would be up for Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, Best Original Screenplay and Best Director when Oscar time rolls around.
However, the Academy has a tough time embracing such dark subject matter. In reality, Carey Mulligan will be a Best Actress nominee, and I hope writer-director Emerald Fennell snags a nod for her brilliant script.
Promising Young Woman is in my personal Top 10 films of 2020, but I will readily admit that it’s not for everyone. If you like cinema that pushes boundaries and challenges you, then you definitely want to take this ride.
It’s a brilliant cutting-edge film that uses many familiar thriller tropes to get the audience to re-examine their opinions about gender roles, sexual politics and the casual misogyny that’s all too common in 21st century America.
Promising Young Woman is currently available on Premium Video on Demand.