Too much of being a woman is wrapped up in how society defines womanhood. Femininity is desired, but also seen as subservient and lesser than. So when approaching a film that explores such expectations and their repercussions when things go wrong, it’s just as important to dissect the methods in which they are explored, since that’s just another layer in the perception of womanhood. It’s unfortunately uncommon for men to control these narratives about women and subsequently push their own expectations, but that is not the case here.
Promising Young Woman is a black comedy feature debut from writer, director, and co-producer Emerald Fennell. Starring Carey Mulligan as Cassie Thomas, the protagonist who showed a bright future in med school until unforeseen circumstances derailed her path. Now, quite a few years later, she’s still caught up in her trauma. She lives at home with her parents, works at a coffee shop, and on the weekends pretends to be a drunk girl at clubs to seek revenge on the men who try to take advantage of her seemingly incapacitated state. Things, however, become complicated when Cassie is confronted with the reminder of the event that started it all. She must choose how she must seek retribution directly or try to move on.
If that summary seems vague, that is because it intentionally is. While much of the film explores what culture as a whole expects from women and the culture around sexual assault in its many forms, the defining thematic core of Promising Young Woman is how reputation is related to it. This is not only exhibited by how the characters in the film feel about their reputations, their insistence that they are good people and must come off as such despite the terrible acts they perform, but how the audience interacts with the limited pieces of information they are given and how that shapes their perception of these characters. That is to say, your impression of the characters throughout the film is just as important as how they recognize each other. Both of those perspectives marry together to center the narrative through a lens focused by the disconnect between the true morality and the assumed morality of a situation. What’s worse, doing something terrible and maintaining a good reputation despite it, or being regarded as a terrible person despite innocence? How should the space between those two possible truths be navigated? While there are other aspects of misogyny that are explored throughout the story, Promising Young Woman’s use of perception through narrative omissions and editing choices is a fantastic use of the medium and the strongest part of the film.
Since so much of the film relies on the characterization of Cassie, it’s important that she feels like a real person. In so many stories with female leads about sexual assault and the patriarchy, the lead is often diluted into an archetype or interacts with the topics presented as if they are one-dimensional. Promising Young Woman does not fall into this trap. Carey Mulligan does a fantastic job of bringing Cassie to life, and the rest of the cast does so as well and nails the deadpan wit of the script. The set design and costuming is also bright and works well to reflect or foil against the characters that inhabit this world. Cassie, as a character, is given an appropriate amount of nuance, although sometimes she comes dangerously close to being a tragic symbol rather than embody the reality of a struggling woman. The male gaze is only present to be an object of critique. None of the uncomfortable moments are glamorized, yet it does push the envelope of what it includes as a shock factor.
Promising Young Woman is nothing if not shocking. The majority of the film utilizes this well and weaponizes surprise to build an atmosphere of uneasiness that melds with the dark comedic tone. That being said, the third act is especially controversial. When the serious subject matter has reached its climax, it should’ve been handled with a more nuanced hand and given more space to breathe. Within the plot, it may have been appropriate, but it was not handled well enough to be regarded as such. The haste with which the end was executed does not allow the film to find the satisfying ending it reached towards.
Clever and unconventional, Promising Young Woman is worth the watch. For the most part, it juggles its exploration of serious, complex, and intersecting topics with building an entertaining plot and fleshing out its characters well. While it does fumble a little near the end, that does not negate the holistic brazen experience of a woman trying to right past wrongs.