Promising Young Woman
Director: Emerald Fennell
Writer: Emerald Fennell
Cast: Carey Mulligan, Bo Burnham, Clancy Brown, Jennifer Coolidge, Laverne Cox, Adam Brody, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Alison Brie, Connie Britton, Max Greenfield, Chris Lowell, Molly Shannon, Alfred Molina
Seen on: 23.8.2021
Content Note: rape, rape culture
Cassandra (Carey Mulligan) has a hobby: she goes out a lot, pretends to be drunk and waits until a man tries to pick her up and fuck, or rather rape her. Then she confronts him about his actions. Other than that, her life is pretty uneventful. She lives with her parents (Clancy Brown, Jennifer Cooldige) and works in a coffeeshop. When Ryan (Bo Burnham) comes into the coffeeshop one day, he recognizes her from college and asks Cassie out. This reconnection to her own past has unforeseen consequences for both of them.
Promising Young Woman is a strong film that is definitely worth seeing, even though it doesn’t come without flaws. It certainly leaves an impression and opens up a discussion.
Promising Young Woman gets many things very right. The way it shows just how pervasive rape culture is and how it’s not only that everyone is complicit in it, but that it is necessary for everyone (or at least a critical mass) to be complicit for it to work, is a spot-on criticism, delivered with the necessary force.
It’s also a perfectly well-made thing with a stunning Mulligan in an even more stunning performance, surrounded by wonderful supporting characters (although it would have done the film some good not to fall into the Black bestie trope, although Laverne Cox was great). Bo Burnham was never more charming, and it was easy to fall for his Ryan along with Cassie. But even more outstanding, for me, was the production design that moves somewhere between humor and weaponized softness. The story moves along at a quick pace and I was completely emotionally invested all the time. It is absolutely worth seeing, and maybe you should come back to this review when you did.
But there are two things I struggled with (and that other people struggled with as well). For one, quite simply, I wanted Cassie to survive this film. I wanted her to find some hope, some healing, instead of becoming a sacrifice (although I have to say, props to Fennell for the murder scene, because that was hard to watch – and rightly so). Her revenge quest is fucked up, there is no doubt about it. She isn’t necessarily right in what she does and there are people she hurts in ways that aren’t appropriate. But hurt people lash out and I was willing to forgive and let her heal, especially if the film had acknowledged that pain leads to more pain if it finds no other outlet, and what outlet does Cassie have? Instead the film saw the only way in finding peace for Cassie in her death, and that makes her victory (if it is a victory indeed) very hollow.
The second thing was that Nina, the person whose rape was the catalyst for the events of the film, got no say in any of it – literally. Nina is dead at the beginning of the film and we learn practically nothing about her apart from being Cassie’s friend and a rape victim. Towards the end of the film, Cassie laments that the rape obliterated Nina long before she died for real. Here, too, there is no way to survive being raped. And there is no consideration for what Nina might have wanted. Did she want to see her or any rapist punished? Did she want to be avenged? Did she want Cassie to dedicate her life so entirely to her? If I was in Nina’s position, I wouldn’t want any of it, really. Well, punishment for the rapist would be fine. But I would want my best friend to find a way to live with the horror, and not die for it.
Despite those issues there is no doubt in my mind that Promising Young Woman is an important entry into the feminist cinema canon, and it should definitely be seen – and talked about. And hopefully, it will be an eye-opener for some people about rape culture.
Summarizing: Not without issues, but really good.