Promising Young Woman: fresh and fun, but never meeting full potential

Carey Mulligan as Cassie, a “promising young woman” who has left behind any standard version of success she could have had to wage a one-woman war against “nice-guy” sexual predators. Photo: Focus Features

Written and directed by Emerald Fennell, Promising Young Woman is the story of Cassandra Thomas (Carey Mulligan), a coffee shop worker and medical school-dropout who goes out at night pretending to be drunk and vulnerable so that she may lure predators into taking advantage of her, only to later confront them on their bad behavior. When she becomes romantically involved with her old classmate Ryan Cooper (Bo Burnham), she begins a quest of vengeance against those who she holds responsible for the rape, alienation, and suicide of her best friend. It’s a fun, fresh take on a genre that is just inundated with toxic masculinity, but it is not without a few of its own artistic hiccups. Spoilers below:

But let’s just get this out of the way: the film is just plain gorgeous to look at, with a wonderfully wide rainbow of colors filtered through the camera’s lens. Greens are lush, pinks, blues and oranges are especially dazzling, and Mulligan is absolutely golden as Cassandra. This palette is given further pop thanks to cinematographer Benjamin Kračun’s keen sense for composition and framing, with focal points often accented by fantastic work with symmetry.

The pepperings of cotton-candy color also help to reinforce the work’s most major themes: growth and maturity in the aftermath of incredible trauma. Cassie, no doubt very learned of life’s harsh realities, still lives at home with her parents, still holds onto childhood trinkets and, in her own disorderly way, still plays dress-up. Her mentality and behaviors are then juxtaposed with those of who she believes have wronged her and her best friend. As most of them are unable and or unwilling to confront the truth of their transgressions, they go on to lead happy, successful, and adult lives. Its an interesting thesis, if at all intended, and is worth some note and commendation.

Mulligan and Burnham service the at-times shallow script adequately with their performances, bringing to their characters all the requisite jaded edges and believable charm respectively necessary for their roles. Chris Lowell’s turn as Al Monroe (the rapist of Cassie’s best friend) is a stand-out among the supporting players, providing audiences with a nuanced show of guilt and ignorance. Beyond though, say, Laverne Cox’s cool-as-ice Gail, the movie doesn’t take enough time with the other characters for their actors to give them an honest effort, or in the case of Christopher Mintz-Plasse’s Neil, the writing goes so low that the acting doesn’t get much better.

Cassie confronts Neil (Christopher Mintz-Plasse). The scene is a low point for the film. Photo: Focus Features

But Promising Young Woman, above all else, is a revenge film. It is in this way then more concerned with dramatizing power fantasies than it is in telling a narrative. While the former is of course important to the catharsis of Young Woman’s target audience, it is not always executed in the most artful way, with dialogue delivered out of the mouths of Cassie’s “victims” coming out more like a check-list of real-world wretchedness, rather than naturally flowing from the characters.

This duty of statement-making that film places upon itself often affects the pacing of certain scenes, as well as the film’s structure as a whole. I’m referring specifically to Cassandra’s times with Neil, Dean Walker (Connie Britton), and Jordan Green (Alfred Molina). Our exposure to these characters is short, and their interactions with our protagonist are constructed in a simplified, “in-and-out” fashion. Their excuses and perspectives are of course all too common in true stories of rape and rape cover-ups (and I applaud Fennell for shining this spotlight of shame upon them), but the scenes just happen too dang fast, with only Cassie’s interaction with Walker even vaguely gesturing at arc or dramatic tension. 

And that’s the main flaw of Promising Young Woman: everything happens at break-neck pace. There’s no room for the plot to settle, for the audience to breathe, or, as unfortunate as it is to say, to even care. We should care about the film’s timely content, do not get me wrong, but the film itself does not do much to establish that on its own merit. Viewers must rely on their own experiences, on their own judgments against the patriarchy, rather than the plot of Young Woman itself to cheer on and root for Cassie. 

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