The first time I saw Promising Young Woman, I spent the last maybe 15 minutes outright sobbing—not from sadness or grief, but because I’ve never felt such catharsis from a film. Perhaps in the future, I will write a more in-depth piece on the ending specifically, but for now, I want to focus on all of the gooey, yummy sumptuousness in between. Writer/director Emerald Fennell has truly captured something magical in her debut feature. In all honesty, it took me so long to write this review because I needed to sit with it, reflect on my emotional reaction, and try to come up with words worthy enough of this masterpiece. Yes, I said masterpiece.
In Promising Young Woman, Cassie (Carey Mulligan) lays in the wake of a tragic incident involving her best friend, Nina. And, as any good friend would do, she seeks meticulous vengeance for her friend, as if it were her career. By day, she works at a coffee shop with her boss-friend Gail (Laverne Cox) and lives with her parents, played by Jennifer Coolidge—in a truly stunning performance—and Clancy Brown. By night, she’s just, well, a regular girl doing what she feels is right. You could call it survivor’s guilt, or vigilantism, but whatever you call what Cassie is doing, she’s doing it her own way and you can’t tell her how she should be going about her business. Moral ambiguity abounds, she does what she has to in order to get her point across. In her world, nobody takes these issues seriously. Administrators and lawyers are heartless, friends and classmates pretend it never happened. But Cassie is going to make sure they never forget Nina.
What initially grabbed me about this film was the stylization. From the opening credits to the set design, everything just oozed Fennell’s particular vision. Set in Ohio, the locations are reminiscent of an up-and-coming mid-sized city trying to replicate the vibe of Williamsburg, Brooklyn circa 2013. It nails everything from the finance-bro infested club to the perpetually eerie construction site around the corner from fancy apartment buildings to the newly refurbished coffee shop complete with a tongue-in-cheek neon sign. Add to that the perfectly crafted soundtrack and the impeccably curated-for-each-moment wardrobe, and you have a visual and auditory feast. Maybe I’m a bit of an “ooh shiny” person but boy does good production design make or break a movie for me. Top that with an exquisitely told story and a tone that matches the visuals, and I’m sold. Come on, how can you hate a film that features Paris Hilton’s seminal hit “Stars are Blind”? You didn’t think I’d forget to mention that absolutely iconic scene, did you? As iconic as it is though, like much of the film, it feels like you’re waiting for the ball to drop.
Tonally, the film is rather cynical for a rape-revenge film, or rather it’s self-aware and a bit satirical—in the sense that all of these characters, from the lone on-screen female classmate Madison (Alison Brie) to the sweet, boyfriend-material former classmate Ryan (Bo Burnham), to the dismissive, fake-nice Dean Walker (Connie Britton) are all stereotypes of people you encounter after you’ve been assaulted. And they get their comeuppance in what some might not consider a perfect way, but in what I consider a satisfying way. The film is pure wish-fulfillment for me. This isn’t some cloudy A24 tear-jerker with a soft and quiet aesthetic telling a somber tale of sexual assault. It’s loud and brash and neon candy-coated revenge. It is its own thing, a film that calls out rape culture in a shocking manner, chock to the brim with a stylization that enraptures you to continue watching this uncomfortable tale of so many women’s realities.
If you look at the line-up of men Cassie encounters, the majority of them are self-described feminists, “good guys” if you will. Most of them seem nervous to be doing what they’re attempting to do, not cocky like the men in so many other rape-revenge films. It’s real but in a different way. Most people really are not going to murder random men to seek justice against a culture so ingrained in our society that these men don’t even think twice about taking home a girl who can barely keep herself awake long enough for them to assault her. It just wouldn’t happen—morals and guilt get in the way. And any survivor, or a person who’s ever seen a single tweet from a survivor honestly, knows that the forces are sworn to protect us never actually do. In Cassie’s mind, it’s up to her to take care of business. No predator is safe around her, not even the allegedly nice ones.
The “nice guy” trope is exploited here to demonstrate the reality of a lot of sexual assaults. Whether they feel they deserve physical affection or they simply don’t think what they’re doing is wrong, these men all, without fail, ignore the woman’s ability to consent. Most men feel so entitled to a woman’s body, even if they don’t fit the mold of a misogynist gym rat who makes THAT face in selfies (you know the one). And the men featured in this film are all different breeds of disgusting; you’ve got Jerry (,) as the “I’m not like my douchey colleagues over there” type, Neil (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) as the nerdy wannabe-hipster coke addict, etc. But for once, the men are never focused on the women, the victims of the story. You never forget these men’s names or what they’ve done, or attempted to do, but this is Cassie and Nina’s story.
I think that’s what makes Promising Young Woman so special—we aren’t focused on the victim or the perpetrator, but rather the best friend left behind to pick up the pieces. She’s the last one standing in the fight, and Cassie isn’t just fighting the men she picks up at bars or clubs—she is fighting against rape culture as a whole. Cassie challenges the people surrounding Nina’s assault to reassess their mindset. A lot of people often don’t take things seriously until it happens to them until it hits close to home. This could be a lack of sympathy or it could be the conditioning of rape culture in today’s society. I could go on for hours explaining the impact of rape culture on especially college-aged people, specifically fraternity members, but if you’re interested in the film, you probably already know what rape culture is. It’s not to say that the actions of these men are fully normalized if you’re aware of the full situation. No, instead rape culture normalizes the before picture—the drunk-ish guy taking the drunk girl he’s been talking to all night home. We’re conditioned not to ask questions, but rather to assume. And when one of these men is in the news for a horrific sexual assault, everyone acts so shocked.
Here’s the part where we get to the oh-so-divisive ending. I enjoyed it personally—I actually found it incredibly cathartic. Once those final scenes began, I immediately had the most cathartic cry I’ve ever had in my life. I do recognize that not all survivors feel the same way, just like any other film about the subject (save for Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man… I joke), but I am also entitled to my catharsis here as well. No two people experience and process trauma in the same way, and that is completely alright. However, I do hope that others may find a film that makes them feel the same way that Promising Young Woman made me feel—you deserve it too.
To be honest, I don’t really want to stop talking about Promising Young Woman, ever. Emerald Fennell has an absolute gem in this one. The film is poignant yet colorful, cynical yet fun, heartbreaking yet therapeutic. I truly hope that each and every one of you can find a film that makes you feel the way this one made me feel. Promising Young Woman is now available on VOD. And remember kids, men are trash.