Written and Directed by Emerald Fennell
Starring Carey Mulligan, Bo Burnham, Alison Brie, Clancy Brown, Jennifer Coolidge, Laverne Cox, Connie Britton
There is a tacit understanding within the bounds of Promising Young Woman that men of college age and above are perverted cowards at best, rapists at worst. There is but one man with a line in the film that escapes this reverse Bechdel test, and that’s the father of Cassie Thomas (Mulligan), played pensively by Clancy Brown. He’s playing way against type here, and it’s weird seeing someone so obviously masculine just waiting to see if his daughter has started to live again.
The reason for Cassie’s arrested social development is due to something that happened to her friend, Nina, when they were both in medical school. It’s kind of obvious what this is, but thankfully Fennell chooses restraint when we get the reveal. So Cassie works beneath her education level at a coffee shop, waiting for the night so she can act out her revenge on every man intending to do her wrong.
The process is simple. Cassie goes to nightclubs, acts like she is foolishly drunk, then allows men to bring her home. They get the idea she might be an easy mark. Instead, she gives them an important lesson on the meaning of the word, “No.”
Some of these sequences are haunting, for their choice to show weak, or seemingly polite men who work themselves into the idea that this obviously blitzed woman is going to become an easy mark. They say nice things, then creepily spill into her unprotected regions. It is a small group of men that fit this slimy mold, but Cassie’s vision keeps them firmly in sight.
Along comes her former medical school classmate, Ryan (Burnham). They have an embarrassing meet cute. He gives her the kind of deference that tells her it’s okay to move forward, slowly. Then one night he sees her on the prowl after she told him she is too tired for a movie.
Fennell’s touch is distinctly feminine. Cassie could be some vindictive and homicidal monster, but no, the film and actress are too smart for this. Instead we see someone who restrains her anger into something she can escape, but can drive home her point with precision. She’d like to move on. She’d also like her friend back. That will never happen, especially when every man she meets is the same…other than her dad.
If the film doesn’t take the time for a truly alternative male voice, this can be forgiven. There is a story to tell here, and Cassie needs her revenge. So instead we get Mulligan walls up and angry most of the time. There is some truly foolish decisions in the last act that seem impossibly convenient.
Being careful to avoid revealing too much, I can say it’s never a good idea to throw your license plate in the trees next to your car if you plan on committing something heinous, or just plain illegal, in the area.
Mulligan’s performance resonates with a powerful, yet frail, desire to lash out at the tormentors of her mind and soul. That we only get to see the misery of her friend’s abuse through Cassie’s eyes is a risky choice, but it pays off majestically through the gravity of her performance. She deserves her nominations for this performance, but I think wins are more than certain for her future work.
Fennell does a good job with telling a revenge tale, if the story has to restrict most of her antagonists as buffoons. There are some well crafted scenes, including one with Britton’s Dean Walker, that allow Mulligan to spin her serpentine vengeance on the deserving.
If the story lacks more dimensional characters, we still see a great performance by its lead. We smile with her as her plan reveals itself and we agonize when we realize that smile holds no true joy. This is not a happy story by any means, but it might be good for decent men to see how easy it is to be perceived as villainous by those who have never recovered from true villainy.
(***1/2 out of *****)