The slow trickle of movies that had Spring-2020 release dates to video-on-demand has become a familiar story for cinema of the plague year, and while Promising Young Woman is the latest to follow that pattern, it does so with a buzz that has endured since its Sundance premiere nearly a full year ago.
Having seen it, the reason is obvious; it’s the kind of movie people will talk about, and the critics who got that early look have surely been dying for a viewing public to finally have that conversation with. A commitment to keeping my contribution to that discourse spoiler-free denies me access to certain particulars, but I can say this: actress-turned-director Emerald Fennell had something to say with her debut, and she wrote it on the end of a sledgehammer aimed straight at the audience.
Promising Young Woman follows Cassie Thomas (Carey Mulligan), a woman in her late-20s who works at a coffee shop and lives with her parents. Once a star pupil in med school who dropped out after a traumatic event, Cassie’s life is now dedicated to her new hobby— going to bars and clubs, pretending to be blackout drunk, and waiting for a “nice guy” to step in and take her home. When those guys don’t turn out so nice, she doesn’t turn out so incapacitated, and their names get added to her little book at the end of the night. This lengthy cycle only breaks when a chance encounter with a former classmate, Ryan (Bo Burnham), gives her a chance to revisit the past and close some old wounds for good.
I will go ahead clarify that despite that premise and the look of the trailers, Promising Young Woman is not a horror movie, and anyone going in expecting gore will be disappointed (or relieved, if you’re one of those normal, healthy people). That said, this revenge thriller has plenty of political bite, and there is a lot to love about Fennell’s filmmaking. She has a strong visual approach that yields some arresting images, particularly in the angelic treatment of Cassie, and she seems to have a talent for building atmosphere. Her true masterstroke was filling the cast with actors that have made careers off of playing benign, lovable people— Adam Brody, Alison Brie, Chris Lowell, Connie Britton, Max Greenfield, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, the list goes on— and using our expectations to attack the more polished side of rape culture. It’s a choice as clever as it is effective, and that audience-awareness makes Fennell one to watch moving forward.
However, as much as they make a big impact, sledgehammers can be difficult to wield with any precision. Each moment feels like the result of a confident choice, but they are strung together somewhat unevenly, and not all those choices are necessarily the right ones (for the record, I’m somewhat split on the ending). The characters also suffer from what I would guess is a desire to walk the line between realistic individuals and representative types, most easily seen in Cassie. What does she want out of this revenge, exactly? Mulligan plays that conflict beautifully, but the political messaging needs an answer, and the lack of clarity leaves viewers to debate the nuances of the film’s stance amongst themselves. Which, of course, is not necessarily a bad thing.