Promising Young Woman (2020)
Powerful storytelling in a digestible format
I have to admit that when I first saw the trailer for Promising Young Woman, I thought I had the whole movie figured out in advance. My guess was: Woman goes on a rampage of revenge against all the men who wronged her in the past. And on a very surface level, I was somewhat right. But below my broad assumption, there’s a lot more to this film than a one sentence summary.
Cassie is a 30 year old former medical student who works in a coffee shop. Traumatized by the rape and alluded-to suicide of her best friend, she visits nightclubs and pretends to be drunk in order to scare men who try to take advantage of her. Those closest to Cassie are disappointed in her personal and professional life and expect more from her. Once she starts a romantic relationship with a former schoolmate, she uses the opportunity to exact revenge on those she holds responsible for her best friend’s death.
With a plot like this, Promising Young Woman could easily have gone down the path of ostentatious film-making. In fact, the poorly cut trailer, featuring Carey Mulligan in a sexy nurse outfit and Britney Spears’ Toxic in the background, presented it that way. But the filmmakers did a great job of finding a clear, meaningful direction and sticking to it.
Cassie’s trauma felt visceral from start to finish and her behavior never really seemed over-the-top. At times, it almost felt grounded – like the plausible actions of someone severely traumatized but with strong cognitive function. And the reactions of those she was scaring seemed equally plausible. No ‘What are you going to do? Kill me?’ horror movie responses here. Instead, her ‘victims’ were immediately concerned about their reputations, careers and family life when faced with an accusation (spoken or unspoken).
Those ‘victims’ also happened to be both men and women. This was something I was also concerned about when I first saw the trailer. I was afraid the movie might apply a ‘(men=perpetrators) plus (women=victims) minus (nuanced discussion)’ formula. But Promising Young Woman paints a realistic picture of the different ways in which people experience and perceive things. One person’s lifelong trauma is another person’s vague memory. Throughout the movie Cassie seems very aware of this, and her goal is to have people understand her perspective, whether they were directly involved or complicit in her best friend’s death. Ultimately, the punishment she inflicts on people is having them experience her trauma.
Carey Mulligan expertly delivers as a woman jaded by people’s indifference and condescension toward her. Her facial expressions are subtle and timed perfectly to moments only Cassie and the audience are aware of. Mulligan leads a generally decent cast of actors. There are even a few recognizable and surprisingly unadvertised faces like Alison Brie, Alfred Molina and Laverne Cox in the film. Even former YouTuber-turned-actor Bo Burnham holds his own next to Mulligan. Unfortunately, there are also a few really poor performances that feel like they belong in a Hallmark movie. It was as if some of the actors made the same assumptions I did when I saw the trailer and showed up for a completely different type of movie. Too bad nobody bothered to correct them.
Promising Young Woman stayed with me long after I finished watching it. It’s both entertaining and thought-provoking without feeling preachy. It’s bright color palette surprisingly works well with it’s dark themes. And, without giving anything away, the ending was quite satisfying.
Source: Promising Young Woman (Focus Features) (2020)