Review - Promising Young Woman

I don't normally add these to my reviews but I don't normally review films like Promising Young Woman. So, this is a formal trigger warning, the film I'm about to discuss contains details of sexual assault and violence against women as pivotal plot points. I'm going to try and be as sensitive as I can in discussing these themes but if you find them too upsetting, I'd recommend not reading this week.

Promising Young Woman is one of this years biggest nominees at the Oscars, up for Best Director, Best Actress and Best Picture, among two other nominations. It's from Emerald Fennell, who's a first time director and it's also really controversial for a whole heap of reasons. As someone who loved it, let me tell you why I think it's worthy of a watch.
Much as you may think you know where the film is going, it keeps convincing you that you might in fact be wrong.

Three men are at a bar, they're trying to pick up women. They look over and see a very drunk woman. She's alone and clearly needs help. One of the men goes over to her and offers to take her home... except in the taxi, he decides to take her back to his instead. The man starts kissing the woman, makes an attempt to escalate the situation, when she suddenly turns to him, now deadly sober and asks "what are you doing?" The woman is Cassie, a dropout from medical college who spends her weekends going to bars and seeing how much men will take advantage of a much drunker woman. The reasons she's doing it are slowly revelead throughout the film so I won't spoil them here but eventually, that "reason" rears its head again and she is forced to re-confront her trauma and return to the world of her past. One of the things that really impressed me about the narrative of Promising Young Woman was that even though I felt I knew the general outline of the story, the film kept finding ways to wrong foot me. Much as you may think you know where the film is going, it keeps convincing you that you might in fact be wrong. I thought that alone made the film incredibly gripping.

The performances as well here are just great, from every perspective. There's a bunch of one scene performances, bordering on cameos, from some great actors and they're used in really fascinating ways, often completely against their star personas. For example, Christoph Mintz-Plasse (aka McLovin from Superbad) has a small role as one of the men who takes Cassie home, where he lectures her about how David Foster Wallace changed his life. He's hilarious and cringe worthy in equal measures in the part, and all the actors in similar roles have the same effect. There's also Alison Brie, who's so likable in everything she's in, turning up at one point to really play up the fake niceties. My favourite of all the supporting cast though is easily Bo Burnham. Burnham's stand up specials are some of my favourite, where he navigates humour and pathos with what appears to be ease, so seeing him here was immediately a joy to me. He gets so much to do with his role and also gets to embody the kind of person that many viewers may realise they are quite similar to. Without saying too much, I just thought he was fab. Deserved highlight of the film though is Carey Mulligan as Cassie. Mulligan is the kind of actress who I see in something, think "wow, she's great in this, what else have I seen her in?", at which point I realise I've actually seen her in many other brillaint films, being just as brilliant. I attribute this to her chameleonic skill as an actor, blending into any given character so well that all I can see is the actor. Cassie is another one of those roles, made doubly juicy by how against type it is for her. While I think other actors could succeed in the role, she adds a flair to it that feels really unique.

In terms of the way Promising Young Woman works on its audience, it is unbelievably tense, or at least it was for me. There is this horrible feeling that the film imbues you with immediately, with shots of grinding pelvises in a club. We've all heard or experienced stories like these, unfortunately more so than ever recently, so there is a horrible tension that something awful might happen. It's not that the film is completely dour, because it also brings in dashes of comedy to make the viewing experience slightly less relentless, many of which come from Bo Burnham. I wish I could have seen this film in a cinema, because the mix of nervous laughter and claustrophobic tension would have led to an amazing viewing experience, with the room split between laughter and fear at all moments. There's also moments of grim nausea, becoming more and more frequent as the film goes on. I won't say too much as I don't want to spoil the ending, but there's just a grim sense of inevitability by the end that weighed on my mind for the rest of the day.

Promising Young Woman is filled with a tension that didn't leave my shoulders for hours after.

Before we wrap up, I also want to discuss how the film presents its issues, sensitive as they are. I'm not even remotely an authority on how to represent sexual assault or trauma from sexual violence on screen, so feel free to take my opinion as it is but do go enhance your understanding with thoughts from female critics on the film. Anyway, there is an incredibly delicate balance that the film takes and I think one thing that is immediately brilliant is that there are no on screen depictions of these acts. It's something that certain films often use for shock or cheap emotional impact and this is a film that knows the brief emotional sting isn't worth the damage those moments could do. I also think that the film does a great job and not completely aligning us with Cassie. She is totally compelling, but her quest for revenge is not framed as the only true course of action. No "true course" is highlighted at all, but there are a selection of characters around her who offer alternatives, all of which aided the general representation of the matter. Throughout, we are shown the feeling of accomplishment Cassie's pursuit gives her, but also the toll it has taken on her life at large. I know the ending has struck an off note with many but again, I think it works if you consider the grim inevitability of pain that these acts result in and don't take every emotion or action the film shows as verbatim. Again, no spoilers, but I think the ending is certainly trying to wrong foot you emotionally, which was what I got out of it at least.

So yeah, I think this film is fantastic. I've only seen about half of the nominees for Best Picture right now, but it's my favourite of the ones I have seen. It is filled with a tension that didn't leave my shoulders for hours after, but its a tension that never sacrifices integrity for impact. It flows great, it looks great and everyone involved is doing an amazing job. I would give Promising Young Woman


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