It took me a while, but I finally caught up with PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN (2020), one of the more heralded films from 2020, now currently streaming on HBO Max.
I wish I had caught this one sooner.
PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN opens in a bar with a group of guys talking about a female co-worker in a rather disparaging way. They spy an attractive young woman who is drunk and about to pass out sitting alone. The one “nice guy” in the group approaches her, asks if she is okay, and then offers to bring her home. Instead, they take a detour to his apartment, where he offers her another drink and then begins to make out with her even though she is too drunk to respond. As he begins to undress her, she repeatedly and weakly asks, “what are you doing?” The guy ignores her question, until she says loudly this time, “What are you doing?” and he looks at her, and she’s staring at him, and she’s stone cold sober.
From this moment on, the film never looks back.
The young woman is Cassie (Carey Mulligan), and she’s just turned 30 and is living at home with her parents working in a coffee shop, after quitting medical school years earlier, even though she really wanted to become a doctor. And she quit medical school to take care of her best friend, Nina, a fellow medical school student, who was raped by a male student while his friends watched. And he got away with it because the school decided it was a “he said, she said” thing and that was that. The incident literally killed Nina as she never recovered and later committed suicide.
Cassie ventures through night clubs pretending to be drunk, and each night she’s picked up by some “nice guy” who offers to take her home but instead tries to have sex with her, and each time she turns the tables on him and shows him that in reality he’s not such a nice guy.
But then another old friend from med school Ryan (Bo Burnham) walks into the coffee shop and recognizes Cassie. He eventually asks her out, and after some hesitation, she says yes, and things go well, until he mentions that one of their old friends Al Monroe is about to get married. This news jolts Cassie because Al Monroe is the guy who raped Nina. And suddenly, Cassie’s need for vengeance rises to a whole other level.
PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN is one of the best movies I’ve seen in a long time, and had I seen it when it first came out back in December 2020, it would have easily been one of my favorite movies of the year.
Emerald Fennell’s screenplay won the Oscar last year for Best Original Screenplay and rightly so. The story nails the way a lot of men treat and talk about women, but better yet, what it feels like for women to be on the receiving end of that kind of treatment. It’s also empowering to watch Cassie turn the tables on these cowardly predators. That being said, I found this one to be a nail biter throughout, because as I watched Cassie go to these bars, I feared that one time she wouldn’t be able to turn the tables on the “nice” guy.
And later while some of the vengeance scenes are played to elicit nervous laughter, for me the overwhelming emotion throughout this story was sadness, for what happened to Nina, and for what Cassie was doing, in effect not living her life because she was hyper-focused on avenging and finding meaning in her friend’s death.
The script is tight throughout, is filled with hard hitting and memorable dialogue, and never misses a beat.
Likewise, Carey Mulligan knocks it out of the park as Cassie. I’ve been a fan of Mulligan’s for a while, and she has delivered a string of memorable performances in such films as DRIVE (2011), THE GREAT GATSBY (2013), MUDBOUND (2017) and most recently in THE DIG (2021), but I’ve never seen her as singularly focused and powerful as she is here as Cassie. It’s hands down the best performance I’ve seen Mulligan deliver yet. If this were a lesser movie, Cassie would be tearing into these men with knives and other sharp weapons. In PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN, she tears into them with words, and it is quite the sight to see her shred these people with the power of her words as she attacks them with truths that cut through them as assuredly as if she were wielding a dagger.
Mulligan makes Cassie an admirable avenger throughout, but one I couldn’t stop worrying about knowing the dangerous waters in which she was swimming.
Bo Burnham is effective as new boyfriend Ryan, who like every other male in the movie seems like a nice guy, but you keep waiting for his true self to be revealed, and Burnham is really good at keeping those suspicions in line.
Clancy Brown and Jennifer Coolidge are excellent as Cassie’s worried and awkward parents. Brown gets one of the best scenes in the movie when he tells Cassie just how much he and her mom have missed her.
The film has a great supporting cast, which includes Alison Brie, Laverne Cox, Adam Brody, Christopher Minztz-Plasse, Max Greenfield, and Christopher Lowell, who all contribute in small roles throughout the movie.
As I said, Emerald Fennell won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, and she also directed PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN. Her direction is every bit as good as her screenplay. She keeps things stylish, lively, and disturbing throughout. And sad. I just couldn’t shake an overwhelming feeling of sadness throughout this movie, which is less about one woman’s avenging spirit and more about the cruel world in which women are forced to navigate.
The film’s conclusion, where Cassie seeks final revenge on Al Monroe the night before his wedding, is the most disturbing sequence of all in a film that is full of uncomfortable moments and reveals. It packs quite a jolt, but it works. The best part about the ending, and the film in general, is had this been a male dominated revenge tale, the final scene would have been a bloodbath. Here, that’s not the case. What ultimately happens is consistent with the main theme of this movie, with the males getting away with their crimes thanks to a society which consistently looks the other way, but in the final reel, the film has one last chess move that for the sake of this story, offers some semblance of satisfaction, although it’s hardly a happy ending. But it works.
PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN could easily be dismissed as just another “empowered women” movie where the women are always right and the men are always wrong, but that would be missing the point. The men’s views and attitudes towards women in this movie are always wrong, and these attitudes and views are never right. These are views and attitudes that are downright shameful and ugly. PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN simply exposes these views and attitudes as it tells the story of one woman who wanted to make sure that those responsible for ruining the life of her best friend Nina never forget her name.
And after the events in PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN, they won’t.
Neither will you.