When the #MeToo movement broke big, it brought the force of a cultural supernova in its wake. After years of silence, of being either marginalized or vilified by a system designed to keep them down, multitudes of women could finally speak. It wasn’t perfect–this country still has too many hogs at the trough–but this had the feel of overdue progress. Promising Young Woman effectively takes all those complex emotions and channels them into a snarky, startling black comedy. While this film might be a smidge too out there for some tastes, anyone who can get on its wavelength will be rewarded with some raunchy humor and the terrible truth buried within it.
The film centers on Cassie (Carey Mulligan), a thirtyish woman whose life currently hums in idle. She lives at home with her exasperated parents (Jennifer Coolidge and Clancy Brown), who plead with her to move out and make something of herself. Turns out, our hero was once a promising med student who walked away from her lifelong dream of healing people.
This might sound like another rumination on arrested development, but that would be dead wrong: We learn that Cassie’s best friend Nina was gang-raped by their university classmates, who cheered as they filmed the incident. After years spent in a fog of depressive malaise, Cassie finally realizes her calling. She becomes an avenging angel for all the silent victims of date rape, while also assembling a Kill Bill list of the slimy frat boys who victimized Nina that night.
Every weekend, Cassie puts on a similar performance: She staggers from one club to the next, playing the part of an over-served party girl slumped in a booth by herself. Sooner or later, some douchebag will sidle up to take advantage. He’ll put on the facade of a concerned Samaritan, offer to help her into a cab, yada yada yada….they’re back at his place and he’s gone rapey. It’s here that Cassie flips the switch and becomes vengeance, scaring and torturing the holy piss out of her victim in the process.
Cassie’s crusade gets complicated by the arrival of Ryan (Bo Burnham), a med school classmate who might be one of the nice guys. After some awkward push and pull, the two begin dating. Cassie’s heart soon softens, potentially derailing her quest for vigilante justice. As you might guess, she’ll eventually have to decide where her priorities truly lie.
That’s all I want to give away. This is one of those movies that thrives on surprise. Put it this way: Some people will say this movie is shamelessly raunchy. Others will complain it extracts humor from a taboo subject. None of the people in either camp will tell you it’s predictable.
And I will say that Promising Young Woman is one of those movies designed to rattle cages. Writer-director Emerald Fennell expertly stages awkward scenes for drama, humor, or both at once. Many moments are so uncomfortable that our only response is to laugh at them.
Mulligan supplies the film with much of its gravitational pull. Her performance blends well-worn sadness with sardonic humor to keep us drawn to Cassie, even in her darkest moments. Don’t be shocked if she snags an Oscar nomination for her work here. Also, the gifted Burnham is always a welcome presence, and supplies Ryan with a weird, freewheeling charm. These two work up some great chemistry, especially when they’re belting out Paris Hilton to a grocery store’s PA system. (Is it weird that “Stars Are Blind” is stuck in my head, and I…don’t…mind…?)
Promising Young Woman is funny because it’s disturbing, and disturbing because it rings so true. For every #MeToo victory, for every jerkwad Cassie exposes and emasculates, a thousand more tragedies lie tucked away. This film tackles painful subject matter head on, and uses humor in a way few would’ve thought possible. Promising Young Woman‘s style may not be for all tastes, but hidden within its unique comedy is a message everybody needs to hear.
113 min. R.