Review: Promising Young Woman (Fennell, 2020)

Starring: Carey Mulligan and Bo Burnham

Grade: A-

It’s one thing to set out to make a movie dripping in political and cultural relevancy, another to make a highly stylized exploitation satire, and another to have the audacity to combine them. Writer/Director Emerald Fennell did just that, and so much more. Promising Young Woman flawlessly juggles drastically opposing tones to make a fun and accessible movie that earns the cliché’d movie of our times moniker. 

Years after the brutal sexual assault of best friend Nina, Cassie (Mulligan) dedicates her nights to teaching men of the same ilk a lesson. By pretending to be blackout drunk at nightclubs, she allows predators to take her home, only to shame and terrify them when they try to take advantage of her. Meanwhile, Cassie’s budding romantic relationship with nice guy Ryan (Burnham) is rattled when Nina’s abuser comes back into her world, setting off the ultimate revenge plot that puts her already deteriorating social life at risk. 

Fennell’s extraordinary ability to make this movie genuinely enjoyable despite the horrifically dark subject matter is astonishing. By taking the general framework of a rape-revenge exploitation story of something like The Last House on the Left (Craven, 1972) or I Spit On Your Grave (Zarchi, 1978), and stripping it of the male-gaze that treats women victimhood as a prop, she creates a modern perspective that allows the exploitation aesthetics to work in her favor. 

The style doubles down on the presented themes, the colorful veneer of panache not unlike the self-proclaimed nice guys Cassie encounters throughout the film — all wolves in sheep’s clothing. The casting of legitimately charming and innocuous actors as predatory abusers is beyond brilliant, an unobscured reflection of real life. As is the use of professions, locations, and the deconstruction of character relationships. They’re both at once surprising and sadly not at all. Fennell is a master of playing with our expectations to make her point viscerally felt.

Operating within this hyper stylization allows the film to get away with questionable and absurd beats that wouldn’t work without: an abundance of religious allegory, shifts between melodrama and comedy, and contradictory motivations. Without the framework it doesn’t hold up, but this is a world unto itself outside of reality.

Even Carey Mulligan, who is always amazing, surpasses the high bar of her past work to be the best she’s ever been. Like the film itself, she has to juggle being entirely sympathetic and rightfully malicious, all without being characterized as a “psychopath” that so many refer to her as. The authority of her presence in every scene is unmistakable, not unlike Fennell’s command of the film itself. 

This being Emerald Fennell’s feature length debut is invigorating. Her voice is desperately needed in the movie landscape today, especially in niche corners of smart genre-breaking filmmaking that is an unfortunate ultra-serious boys club. Promising Young Woman is an awesome start to a hopefully long and just-as-great directorial career. 

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