Directed by: Emerald Fennell
Written by: Emerald Fennell
Starring: Carey Mulligan, Bo Burnham, Alison Brie, Clancy Brown, Jennifer Coolidge, Laverne Cox
Released: January 7, 2021
Grade: B

Promising Young Woman

While I have a few issues with the script (we’ll get to that in a moment), there’s no doubting that writer-director Emerald Fennell (Killing Eve) and actor Carey Mulligan (An Education) have created one of the year’s most intriguing characters.  Cassie (Mulligan) is a 30-year-old woman who dropped out of medical school, works in a dead-end coffee shop, and still lives at home with her parents.  She sounds like the kind of person who belongs in a movie like Office Space or Failure to Launch.

There’s so much more to Cassie however.  Her best friend committed suicide after being raped at a party several years ago and it’s as if every subsequent decision in her life has been shaped by that event.  Cassie originally sought justice through traditional channels (going to the police, talking to college administration) but when that amounted to nought, she ceased her studies, gave up on a career and devoted her life towards a more vengeful cause.

 Her “work” is demonstrated in the film’s opening scene.  She goes to a crowded bar alone, pretends to be inebriated and, like a spider spinning a web, waits to snare her prey.  Her goal, and it’s a dangerous one, is to be picked up by a sleazy guy who will take her home for non-consensual sex.  At the last possible moment, she reveals her sobriety and shifts the power dynamic in an instant.

A catalyst is required to create change and it arrives in the form of Dr Ryan Cooper (Burnham), a man from Cassie’s past who bumps into her at the coffee shop.  Their first encounter (it involves spitting in a coffee cup) is a memorable one.  Cassie is standoffish at first but a romantic connection soon develops and it’s not long before she’s questioning her current lifestyle.  Can she trust another man and fall in love again?

Promising Young Woman is loaded with interesting, provocative ideas but the contrived nature of the storyline makes it difficult to fully buy into.  Given how untrustworthy Cassie is of men, it’s hard to believe she could so overwhelming fall for a man with a connection, albeit a loose one, to her deceased best friend.  Was there not one genuine guy she met while frequenting bars each night?  I wish the film had of put the foot on the throttle and gone flat-out crazy instead of stalling with these manufactured, semi-redemptive moments during the second act.

Limitations aside, Fennell’s first feature film is still a memorable one.  From the difficult subject matter… to the splashes of dark comedy… to the distinctive music score of Anthony Willis, Promising Young Woman provides an unsettling experience where you’re not always sure what lies ahead.  Carey Mulligan excels in the lead and it again shows her versatility as an actor and her willingness to take on challenging roles.  It’s a film worth seeing.