Cassie (Carey Mulligan) was once a promising young woman, a fact her parents take the opportunity to remind her of every morning at breakfast. Now 30, friendless, living at home despite heavy parental hinting that it may be time to move one, an unambitious med school dropout turned barista, Cassie’s parents (Jennifer Coolidge, Clancy Brown) aren’t sure what it will take to jumpstart her life. To most it would seem that Cassie’s life derailed when her best friend Nina took her own life, but to Cassie, her life has simply taken a different direction. Her life now revolves more or less around avenging Nina’s death.
Nina was also a promising young woman, also a student in medical school when one night she was gang raped. She was a party, too drunk to defend herself, but ostensibly among friends and fellow students, many of whom either participated or stood around watching while it happened. While so-called friends gossiped behind her back, the school administration merely swept it under the same rug where they keep all the other similar complaints, and the court case stalled when the defense turned the table on the victim. Unable to deal with the aftermath, Nina died by suicide. But Cassie, filled with anger and outrage, is not content to let justice remain unserved. She’s become a vigilante of sorts, going out at night, posing as a woman who’s had too much to drink, and if you’re a woman yourself, you’ll be unsurprised by just how many men take the bait. She looks like easy prey, at least until they get her home and try to have sex with a woman they believe is too intoxicated to properly fight them off (despite her clear and repeated NO), then suddenly she snaps to alertness and serves them a warning they won’t soon forget. This is the double life that Cassie’s been living unbeknownst to others – unbeknownst even to new boyfriend Ryan (Bo Burnham), an old classmate and the first man she’s actually trusted since what happened to Nina.
Promising Young Woman is a dark comedy, in fact, a Vantablack comedy, if you’ll permit me trotting out a subcategory I invented of the Ryan Reynolds dark comedy, The Voices. Longtime readers with impressive memories (read: no one, even I had to look it up) may remember that Vantablack is a colour that is blacker than black, absorbing all but 0.035% of light; a black so black our human minds can’t actually perceive it. I would like to unroll this categorization once again, because compared to Promising Young Woman, everything else is pink.
Emerald Fennell, first time director (and also this movie’s writer), has done the improbable and completely made this genre her bitch. It is uniquely difficult to master the tone of such a film, mixing a very heavy topic with moments of genuine laughter and charm. This is truly one of the most provocative, unexpected, daring movies of this year or last. It must be seen.
Carey Mulligan is absolutely breathtaking. Cassie has half a dozen secret lives going at once yet Mulligan not only keeps them straight, she makes them easily identifiable to us, hiding stories and motivations behind her eyes, astonishing us with a raw and layered performance. Bo Burnham has a tall order playing the Last Good Man, bolstering a stellar ensemble. Clearly Fennell impressed half of Hollywood with her audacious script; Alfred Molina, Adam Brody, Alison Brie, Laverne Cox, Connie Britton, Molly Shannon, Max Greenfield, and Chris Lowell fill small but impactful roles, many of them names on Cassie’s shit list.
Regret, retribution, guilt, forgiveness, culpability, corruption, consequences. No one’s life is going to be the same. No one’s getting left off the hook. Cassie’s been living off righteous rage for far too long, and if she can’t have justice, she will have closure, by any means necessary.