Review: ‘Promising Young Woman,’ starring Carey Mulligan

December 26, 2020

by Carla Hay

Carey Mulligan in “Promising Young Woman” (Photo courtesy of Focus Features)

“Promising Young Woman”

Directed by Emerald Fennell

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the dramedy film “Promising Young Woman” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A woman who dropped out of medical school because of a past trauma takes out her anger on unsuspecting people who are directly or indirectly related to this trauma.

Culture Audience: “Promising Young Woman” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in a dark comedic twist on revenge stories.

Carey Mulligan and Bo Burnham in “Promising Young Woman” (Photo by Merie Weismiller Wallace/Focus Features)

It would be easy to assume that “Promising You Woman” is an angry feminist film where a woman pretends to be very drunk at different nightclubs, entices predatory men into trying to take advantage of her sexually, and then humiliates them when she reveals that she’s not drunk and that she just wanted to expose how these supposedly “nice” guys aren’t so nice after all. That’s what happens for a great deal of the movie and what’s shown in the movie’s trailer. But “Promising Young Woman” is not what it first appears to be, just like the movie’s central character Cassandra “Cassie” Thomas (played by Carey Mulligan), the smart but deeply troubled woman who’s hell-bent on a personal agenda for these potentially dangerous sexual games.

“Promising Young Woman” is the first feature film written and directed by Emerald Fennell, a multitalented entertainer who is also an actress. (Fennell portrays Camilla Parker Bowles in Netflix’s “The Crown” series and has an uncredited cameo in “Promising Young Woman” as a makeup tutorial YouTuber.) The story of “Promising Young Woman” takes place in an unnamed U.S. city that could represent any middle-class American suburb. As the story unfolds, viewers find out that Cassie was a talented student in medical school at the fictional Forrest Union University, when she abruptly dropped out because of something traumatic that still haunts her.

When this story takes place, it’s been seven years since Cassie has dropped out of medical school. She turns 30 years old during the course of this story, but it seems as if she doesn’t want to celebrate this milestone birthday or even be reminded of it. That’s because her life is stuck in a rut. It’s implied that Cassie has issues affecting her mental health.

By day, she works in a small coffee shop that’s owned by her sassy boss Gail (played by Laverne Cox), who doesn’t judge Cassie (who’s a sarcastic loner), except in believing that Cassie should be more optimistic about love and dating. Cassie is an only child who still lives with her parents Susan (played by Jennifer Coolidge) and Stanley (played by Clancy Brown), who are worried about Cassie’s life being at a standstill.

Susan is more vocally upset over it than Stanley is, because on Cassie’s 30th birthday (which Cassie claims to have forgotten, but her parents haven’t), Susan yells at Cassie in a moment of anger: “You don’t have any boyfriends! You don’t have any friends!” Cassie’s favorite color is pink, and the way her bedroom is decorated indicates that a big part of herself doesn’t want to grow up.

Stanley is more compassionate and accepting than Susan is about their daughter. He refuses to say any harsh words to Cassie and tries to encourage her to be the best person she can be. However, for Cassie’s 30th birthday, her parents give her a pink suitcase, as a not-so-subtle way of telling her that they really would like her to move out and get her own place.

At night, Cassie has a secret life of going to nightclubs and pretending to be so drunk that she can barely stand or remember her name. A man at the nightclub usually approaches her, with the pretense of being a “gentleman” who will “take care of her,” and escorts her back to his place. He inevitably tries to have sex with Cassie, who will protest and say no, but he will persist and maybe start to remove some of her clothing. Cassie will then shock him by revealing that she’s not drunk at all and that he can’t have sex with her.

Depending on the situation, Cassie will usually humiliate the guy by letting him know that he almost raped her. He usually reacts with surprise over being caught, denial over being labeled as a sexual abuser, and almost always anger by accusing Cassie of “tricking” or “trapping” him. Cassie then goes home and records each incident in a journal, by checking off each encounter with hangman numerical symbols. (These numerical symbols are shown in pink coloring at pivotal points in the story.)

In the beginning of the movie, Cassie is seen playing this game in two separate incidents: First, it’s with a guy named Jerry (played by Adam Brody), who is egged on by the pals he’s with at the nightclub to take advantage of her. Cassie also plays this game with a cocaine-snorting nerdy creep named Neil (played by Christopher Mintz-Plasse), who tries to blame his predatory actions on the cocaine.

Why is Cassie putting herself in these situations? She’s not an undercover cop trying to bust potential rapists. She’s acting out her own type of justice for something involving a sexual assault that happened when she was in medical school. It’s eventually revealed in the movie who was assaulted, what happened and who was responsible.

While Cassie is leading this double life, a customer comes into the coffee shop one day, and he changes Cassie’s outlook on possibly opening up her heart to romance. A former medical school classmate named Ryan (played by Bo Burnham), who is now a pediatric surgeon, is very surprised to see Cassie working in a coffee shop because he thought she would be doing something more prestigious with her life. Ryan immediately stammers and makes a profuse apology to Cassie when he realizes that he had a very condescending reaction to her job.

When Cassie asks him if he wants milk in his coffee, Ryan says, “You can spit in it. I deserve it.” Cassie obliges and spits in his coffee, which Ryan then drinks. It sets the tone for the rest of the relationship, where Ryan is awkward and eager to impress Cassie, while she is coolly sarcastic and hard to read about what she might be really feeling. Ryan tells Cassie that he’s had a crush on her since medical school. He asks her out on a date. She ignores his attempts to court her, until she says yes.

Cassie and Ryan’s budding romance has a dark cloud over it though. Cassie has become secretly consumed with the news that a former medical school classmate named Al Monroe is getting married. She finds out about the upcoming wedding on social media. Al Monroe’s name seems to trigger Cassie on a path that leads to her reliving the trauma she experienced in medical school.

Cassie had a best friend at the time named Nina Fisher, whom she knew since childhood, and they were like sisters to each other. Nina’s name is often brought up in the story in relation to Cassie’s experiences in medical school. Nina and Cassie had the type of friendship where people described Cassie and Nina as “inseparable.”

Some other people from Cassie’s past are in the story, including Madison McPhee (played by Alison Brie), who was a close friend of Cassie and Nina. All three of them were in medical school at the same university. Cassie also visits Nina’s mother Mrs. Fisher (played by Molly Shannon), Forrest Union University’s Dean Walker (played by Connie Britton) and an attorney named Jordan (played by Alfred Molina).

“Promising Young Woman” has moments of being a dramatic thriller (when it comes to Cassie’s nocturnal activities) and a romantic comedy (when it comes to Cassie and Ryan’s relationship), but it becomes clear as the story goes on that the overall tone of the story is a dark satire of how society often handles the complicated issues of sexual assault. The movie shows in realistic ways that women can be just as cruel as men when it comes to blaming and shaming victims of sexual assault.

It’s important to point that out because “Promising Young Woman” is not a man-bashing movie. Rather, the movie accurately shows how people can often blur the lines of what constitutes a sexual assault when intoxication from drugs or alcohol is involved in the incident. Was there consent given because inhibitions were lowered due to intoxication, or was consent taken away because someone wasn’t thinking clearly due to intoxication?

There’s also a culture of complicity and denial when someone accused of sexual assault has a certain “respectable” public image and is considered to be “too nice” to ever be the type of person who would commit this crime. At the same time, in most countries, the law is to consider someone innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. At what point should an accused person be judged by public opinion when that person hasn’t been arrested or convicted of the crime? There are no easy answers in many cases.

And what about people who witness a crime but do nothing about it? How guilty are they and how harshly should they be judged? Those are questions that will make this movie’s viewers think about all the past and present actions of certain characters, as “Promising Young Woman” reveals more of Cassie’s background and how it’s linked to certain people in the story.

“Promising Young Woman” has some interesting soundtrack music choices that successfully demonstrate the dichotomous lifestyle and mindset of Cassie. Two dance-pop songs in particular are put to great use in separate scenes. Britney Spears’ 2003 hit “Toxic” is heard when Cassie goes on the prowl in a pivotal part of the movie. Paris Hilton’s 2006 hit “Stars Are Blind” is heard when Cassie and Ryan playfully stroll through a drugstore and act like teenagers as they sing along to the song when it’s playing over the drugstore loudspeakers.

“Toxic” and “Stars Are Blind” are clever song choices, because of the pop culture context and how it relates to Cassie’s character. Spears and Hilton, who used to be close friends, had “party girl” images when these songs were released. (Spears had her notorious meltdown a few years after “Toxic” was a hit.) Both songs were released during Cassie’s teenage years, when Spears and Hilton probably would’ve made big impressions on Cassie and Nina, who was Cassie’s best friend from childhood.

“Stars Are Blind” and “Toxic” at first seem to be lightweight pop songs, but the lyrics have deeper meaning in the context of this story. As the public now knows, the fun-loving party image presented by Hilton and Spears during their tabloid heyday masked deep-seated emotional problems. It would be easy to speculate that these songs also represent the turbulent emotional journey that Cassie has been on too. She might have imagined as a teenager when these songs were hits that she would also be a fun-loving party girl in her 20s, but her carefree spirit was shattered and she’s been left with disillusionment and broken dreams.

Mulligan gives a memorable and effective performance as Cassie, who doesn’t see herself as a heroine as much as an emotionally damaged crusader. Burnham also shows a certain nuance in his role as the “nice guy” who’s able to thaw Cassie’s cynical heart. The story unfolds in layers, and there are some unexpected twists that upend the usual expectations that viewers might have for movies that cover issues related to sexual assault.

The fact that “Promising Young Woman” is bold enough to approach the subject matter in a satirical tone without making it an offensive mockery of sexual assault is an unusual and tricky feat. Is it an empowering feminist film? Is it too dark to be enjoyable, or is it too comical to be taken seriously? The best thing about the movie is that regardless of how it’s interpreted, it will make an unforgettable impact on people who watch it.

Focus Features released “Promising Young Woman” in U.S. cinemas on December 25, 2020. The movie’s VOD release date is January 15, 2021.