There’s an exhilaration that consumes your body and soul when you see a game-changing film for the first time, and that’s exactly how I feel about writer / director Emerald Fennell‘s “Promising Young Woman,” a bold, provocative, boundary-pushing debut feature. This fearless filmmaking has produced an instant classic that should be added to the very top of the list of must-see feminist cinema.
Cassie (Carey Mulligan) was always told that she was such a promising young woman. Smart, ambitious, and doing well in medical school, a violent incident caused her to drop out and move in with her parents seven years ago. She’s just turned 30 and has lost all desire to do much of anything. Cassie works at a local coffee shop during the day, but she lives a secret life after the sun goes down. It’s revealed that her best friend Nina was sexually assaulted, and Cassie has made it her mission to right the wrongs from the past. Her rage towards those who attacked or dismissed her friend has reached its boiling point, and Cassie decides to teach a lesson to each of the men and women who deserve it.
To dismiss this as another man-hating manifesto is shortsighted. There are so many delicious, devilish layers to the story that give it a timely punch. Fennell doesn’t shy away from pushing buttons, exploring how society’s systems are set up to protect and favor males — and these guys are the ones who commit the worst acts, yet their behavior is excused or dismissed because of a sick inclination to blame the victim instead of the predator. Why is it often the women’s fault for making “bad choices” while men are given the benefit of the doubt? Why are countless women’s accusations waved away as false claims? The film had me boiling with a feminist rage because it’s a reminder that privileged men can sometimes get away with anything, while women are expected to behave a certain way.
The idea of a revenge thriller folded into a black comedy isn’t exactly groundbreaking, but using that concept to express a worldly discourse on misogyny and male privilege is. Fennell crafts her film in such an original way, challenging viewers with an unflinching window into the effects that male cruelty has on so many women.
Just when you think there isn’t one good guy left on Earth, Cassie’s former classmate Ryan (Bo Burnham) re-enters her life. He’s charming and awkward, and she’s cynical but falling in love. This film is so fresh and different that it seamlessly blends romantic comedy with grindhouse-vibe horror. It’s unconventional, to say the least.
None of this would work without Mulligan. Her femme fatale is a fiery antihero to women everywhere, and she turns in the best performance of her career. She shows off her range as Cassie, from cunning, disturbed vigilante to starry-eyed lover. In fact, every element nears perfection in this film, from the music, costumes, cinematography, and pastel-colored production design. Even the title gives off a patronizing vibe towards women. It’s a very film-literate movie with a well-crafted story.
“Promising Young Woman” is a shocking, surprising, and demanding work that is a hell of a feature debut for Fennell. She has forever made her mark on the indie world as a gutsy, confident filmmaker, and I am so excited to see what she does next.