A young woman is very drunk and alone in a club. A group of men have noticed her and are amusingly commenting on how she seeks trouble herself. One of them is worried about her so he proposes to take her home safely. Because he’s a good boy. But he changes his mind and takes her to his apartment. Soon he can’t keep his hands to himself. Suddenly Kassandra asks, blood-sober, what he is doing. The man looks at her anxiously. That’s how Promising Young Woman begins , which immediately draws you into this confrontational but entertaining film. Among the best of the year? I think so.
Best original screenplay, yes
Cassie is around 30 years old and still lives with her parents. She works in a coffee shop with her best friend Gail, but doesn’t really like her job. One day Ryan, an old classmate of hers, walks into the shop. She is charmed by him but at first she doesn’t really want to let him into her life. Meanwhile, she continues to teach men a lesson. She keeps all their names in a notebook. During a conversation with Ryan, he mentions some old classmates from their medical school. Cassie doesn’t react very well to that, but later it becomes clear why.
Cassie’s best friend Nina was raped at a college party but no one believed her. Nina eventually killed herself because her life was ruined. Cassie dropped out of school and never really recovered from it. When she hears how well all those old classmates are doing, something snaps in Cassie, and she devises a plan to get revenge on them. Meanwhile, she tries to hide her double life from everyone, but it gets harder and harder.
I didn’t really know what to expect from this film beforehand. Promising Young Woman already caused a furore at Sundance but was mainly called a “rape revenge” film. While that does describe the main lines of the plot, I don’t think it does the film justice either. Because this is no ordinary slasher. Emerald Fennell’s script takes the concept to the next level. She perfectly knows how to describe a number of situations that women often encounter, such as a little too enthusiastic glances or after-calls, but she always adds a Cassandra twist.
Better than revenge
Sometimes Cassie is the woman we all wish we could be. Tough, cuttingly funny and didn’t fall for her mouth to offer a reply. Of course she goes one step further to take matters into her own hands. But you can also see how she got there. The toll of the rape on Nina is all too obvious, but through Cassie we also see that of those closest to us. She and Nina had their whole lives ahead of them. So much injustice has left Cassie apathetic and ultimately vindictive. That is of course heavily magnified, but still, you could honestly sometimes go for less.
Because too often violence against women goes unpunished, as is also shown by the telling title. It is probably a reference to the Brock Turner case that caused a lot of controversy in the US. After being found guilty of rape, he was sentenced by a judge to barely 6 months in prison for being a “promising young man”. Here it refers to the life Cassie and Nina could have had.
In that sense, Promising Young Woman serves as a kind of fantasy of someone who is seeking justice for himself. On the other hand, the script is written in such a way that you realize that she goes too far and what she does is not okay. The clearest case is one of the school friends who scares them almost inhumanely. The ending will therefore be a bit too much for some, but I certainly didn’t think it was out of the blue.
Emerald Fennell became the first woman ever to win the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay as a solo writer this year. And that was quite right, but still a surprise. Promising Young Woman may be a strong film, but it didn’t seem like a film that would reward the Academy at all. The social criticism is more than present and at the same time it is all really entertaining. Because the script does have a dark side but it is also just very funny. Especially the conversations between Cassie and Ryan are worth gold.
Fennell for the win
That is partly due to the cast. The star and starring role here is for Carrey Mulligan ( An Education , Wildlife ) as Cassie. Here she performs a role that we are not really used to from her yet, and that is a bull’s eye. Her comedic talent is quite amazing, and we already knew she can handle drama. Good that she was nominated for the Oscar, but too bad she missed it. Her chemistry with Laverne Cox ( Orange Is The New Black ) as best friend Gail is very believable and easy. Cox can also be there for the comedy.