Promising Young Woman is a provocative piece of wish fulfillment in which a woman gets revenge not only on the person who sexually assaulted her friend, but also on everyone who enabled it, directly or indirectly. Writer/director Emerald Fennell makes a couple questionable choices in how she depicts this scenario. Nevertheless, the way the movie calls attention to the factors that allow abusers to get away with their crimes is important and insightful. That, combined with a powerhouse performance from Carey Mulligan, makes it a notable #MeToo story.
Mulligan plays Cassie, a woman who every weekend gets vamped up, pretends to get drunk in a bar, and goes home with whatever random dude tries to pick her up. Just when they think they're going to get lucky, she reveals her sobriety, then aggressively calls them out on their attempt to take advantage of her. The men are left shaking.
During her day job working at a coffee shop, Cassie waits on Ryan (Bo Burnham), a guy she went to med school with. They start dating, and he reveals that another old classmate is about to get married. Lo and behold, it's the one who raped her best friend Nina back in the day, driving her to suicide. Cassie, who's been subtly avenging her for years, sets out to get even with the man who started the whole cycle. First, though, she decides to confront the friend (Alison Brie) who didn't believe Nina's accusation, the school dean (Connie Britton) who pulled a Jim Jordan and looked the other way when the assault was reported, and the lawyer (Alfred Molina) who talked Nina into dropping a planned legal case.
Promising Young Woman takes a dark comedic approach to Cassie's revenge – or at least approaches it with irony. In each instance, she makes her target experience the flip side of their actions, so that they feel something similar to what Nina felt. The movie is clever, if a tad unrealistic, in how she sets these individuals up. Watching them squirm proves pleasingly cathartic. They have it coming, and she gives it to them full force.
In following Cassie's scheme, the film gets at some vital truths about sexual assault: that people often don't want to believe accusations when they hear them, that institutions will rally around the accused in order to avoid rocking the boat, that the victim will inevitably be blamed, etc. An entire structure exists that not only makes women reluctant to report an assault, it justifies that reluctance. Promising Young Woman recognizes how sick that is. Cassie is the personification of the rage everybody should feel in knowing women all over the world are going through what Nina endured.
Carey Mulligan is outstanding in the lead role, projecting intelligence and fierceness in equal measure. Even if Cassie's journey occasionally strains the boundaries of credibility, the actress completely convinces us of her determination. The interesting thing about Mulligan's performance is that we can see it working on two levels. To the people she's baiting, she comes off as a sultry vixen. At the same time, we know that it's a ruse – that she's savvy enough to exploit the weaknesses of whomever is in her crosshairs. The character is playing a role, and Mulligan gets that across with sharp satiric precision.
While the wish fulfillment angle works as entertainment, I do have one reservation about it. Promising Young Woman works hard to be sleek and cool. Cassie's final revenge, in particular, is staged in a manner intended to deliver not only just deserts to the rapist, but also to deliver twisted laughs to the audience. I'm not sure Fennell always gets the balance right. There are intermittent spots where the movie's desire to make a stylistic impression threatens to overshadow the importance of the subject matter. Many sexual assault survivors will no doubt find the approach satisfying, but some may find it uncomfortable.
In fairness, that could only be an issue in a film that's brave enough to take chances. Promising Young Woman is certainly willing to do that. Even if imperfect, it provides a compelling fantasy about a woman hellbent on righting a situation that was grievously wrong.
out of four
Promising Young Woman is rated R for strong violence including sexual assault, language throughout, some sexual material and drug use. The running time is 1 hour and 53 minutes.