Promising Young Woman (2020)

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I have been waiting for the release of this one for many months. The trailer is a cracker with a drunk Cassie (Carey Mulligan) being picked up a series of ‘nice guys’ who then sexually assault her in her comatose state.

When she reveals she is actually sober and calls them to account for their behaviour, she shines a light on men’s sense of entitlement to women’s bodies. Set to a soundtrack of Britney Spears’ Toxic, Cassie has an edge of malevolence that feels empowering and clearly targets a femme audience, also evidenced by the makeup of the audience in the session I attended.

And for the most part, this is what the movie is. There is more to Cassie’s story of course, which we divine through hints rather than exposition. She’s 30, living with her parents and sleepwalking through a basic job at a coffee shop owned by Gail (Laverne Cox). She was a ‘promising young woman’, dropping out of medical school with best friend Nina after Nina was sexually assaulted by fellow students while drunk. Her weekly catharsis of making ‘nice guys’ accountable seems less revenge than a mental health strategy that gives her purpose.

We don’t find out much more about Cassie other than the demons that drive her. The tone of the film is slightly non-realist, from the aesthetic pastels of the coffee shop to the reasonable and non-violent responses of the men she confronts. It is underscored by a pop soundtrack, by the bubblegum colour palette, camera angles and composition.

The story, of course, is leading us to the heart of Cassie’s dysfunction – what happened to Nina years before and what Cassie needs to be able to move on. We can see where it’s going, particularly when Cassie meets perfect guy Ryan (Bo Burnham) and we learned that he is friends with Nina’s rapist, but there are some unexpected and uncomfortable detours.

Cassie’s moral compass is put in doubt as she confronts a female friend who disbelieved Nina and the college dean who ‘had to give the male perpetrators the benefit of the doubt’. We can see the culpability of bystanders, of those in authority and of the justice system. We can see the impulse to deny and excuse when confronted with a past error, and the damage cause by avoiding acknowledgement and apology.

The film lost me with the ending though. I’ve read an interview with the director Emerald Fennell where she describes it as the “only real ending possible” and I think it is in this ‘realness’ that it lets down its audience. It’s a shift in tone and at odds with the feminist revenge promise of the trailer. To a largely femme audience, it’s a realness that is far too present, that teaches us nothing and that feels like an assault.

I can see that it is supposed to be ameliorated by a final ‘twist’ but this seemed trite, unbelievable and a disservice to Cassie. It feels like the director expected a broader audience than the trailer seems to target. An audience that might have something to learn from such a problematic ending.

Have you seen this film? Let me know your thoughts.

One thought on “Promising Young Woman (2020)

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