“Promising Young Woman” Brings a Day of Reckoning

In its world premiere at Sundance on January 25th, “Promising Young Woman” brings a unique narrative in our post “Me Too” climate. As this work is broken into five acts, Cassie (Carey Mulligan) leads an all too mundane lifestyle. At 30, she still lives with her parents and works as a barista. Yet, as her story unfolds, her character gains agency and depth. Despite her lifelong desire to become a doctor, she drops out of medical school in order to care for her best friend who has survived a brutal sexual assault. While Cassie survives this traumatic time, she is never quite able to cope with her new reality.

Cassie refuses to let this event destroy her and she carefully utilizes her anger and frustration with the world to get revenge. Every week, Cassie goes out to the bars and feigns becoming intoxicated to the point of blacking out. Without fail, each week, a seemingly “nice guy” offers to take her home. Yet this “nice guy” persona only lasts until they cross the threshold of the venue. Each man brings Cassie back to his apartment or house with ill intent. Before allowing them to continue their attack, Cassie drops her facade of intoxication and forces each man to reckon with their behavior. Despite the misogyny she endures, she never attacks these men — including when she is forced to consume different drugs that she clearly does not want to take. In the opening scene of the film, we see the white savior complex emerge as one man determines to take Cassie home before someone else can “take advantage,” but he becomes the very person he wanted to stop from harming Cassie. 

With pages and pages in a “little black book,” Cassie’s research into the “nice guys” reveals that there is no one you can trust. As Cassie moves forward through her mundane routines, it is clear to see that no amount of time can ever repair the damage caused by her friend’s assault. While we never meet her best friend — Nina — the film refers to her as though she has passed away. But “Promising Young Woman” isn’t just about Cassie’s hobby of dismantling “nice guy” identities. It is a thorough revenge plot. Cassie slowly makes her way through a former “BFF” who refused to believe Nina, a lawyer who refused their case, dismissive university officials, and the film culminates as Cassie confronts Nina’s rapist. Throughout her revenge plot, however, Cassie also discovers a budding romance with a former medical school classmate — Ryan (Bo Burnham). Can someone who has proven that “nice guys” don’t exist fall in love with one?

Cassie’s character gains further complexity as she simultaneously navigates the dating world alongside her underworld of revenge. The romance between Cassie and Ryan is palpable, and Bo Burnham’s background as a comedian shines through as Ryan is a lovable, goofy, and wholesome character — after all, Ryan went on to become a pediatric surgeon while Cassie dropped out to care for Nina. With this new love story, Cassie gains hope and foresees a future of healing. But, unfortunately, the world fails to meet these budding optimistic ideas, and new details of Nina’s assault bring forth evidence that re-open Cassie’s old wounds and spark her most ambitious and cunning revenge plot yet. 

At times, watching Cassie place herself into dangerous situations is difficult to watch. Despite knowing that she has a plan the whole time and knows what she is doing, Cassie does exactly what every young woman is taught to avoid. But, as she teaches each man their lesson, there is a sense of catharsis as you realize Cassie is safe and the men are forced to reconcile with their own identities.

Writer and Director Emerald Fennell

“Promising Young Woman” was both written and directed by Emerald Fennell. For me, knowing that this movie was created by a woman made the storyline even more powerful. As Cassie moves throughout the narrative, she shares the message that it is important to be strong and unapologetic. When the world presents such a toxic environment, a day of reckoning must come. Even with the messages of female empowerment, it is easy to overlook Cassie’s sheer ingenuity. As an audience, we want to protect Cassie and feel fear as she maneuvers increasingly dangerous revenge plots. Yet, her background from medical school and standing at the top of her class reminds us that she does not need anyone’s help. She is self-sufficient and slowly teaches the world an important lesson. 

As “Promising Young Woman” debuted this year, it begs the audience to reflect upon the “Me Too” movement. Whereas allegations against Harvey Weinstein first broke in 2017, just three years later it is already clear to see the cultural movements that have made believing women and survivors a critical issue. While some institutions are still adjusting to these changes, “Promising Young Woman” showcases the necessity of believing survivors, punishing abusers, and creating a more just world. 

Through a powerful narrative and a powerhouse performance from Carey Mulligan, “Promising Young Woman” delivers an incredible storyline that highlights the importance of continual change throughout our post “Me Too” lives. 

4.5/5 stars

 

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