Emerald Fennell has already established herself as one to watch with credentials such as published children’s author, second season show runner for Killing Eve, and for her magnetic portrayal of Camilla Parker-Bowles in The Crown. Now let’s add maverick director to this impressive list with her stunning debut, Promising Young Woman, a film you won’t likely soon forget.
The less detail the better, as this film features one surprise after another, but in broad strokes, Carey Mulligan plays Cassie, a former medical student who, at age thirty, seems determined to exact revenge on men for unspecified reasons. She frequently pretends to drink herself into a stupor at local Ohio bars, waiting for a man to pick her up and try to take advantage of her. Chillingly, she’ll eventually sit up and very soberly ask men what they think they’re trying to accomplish. Clearly on a mission, Cassie’s motivations make up the journey of this candy-colored, pop-tune-laden, yet bracing film experience.
At the outset, we know that Cassie has given up on her ambitions to work at a coffee shop managed by Gail (an excellent Laverne Cox). She lives at home with her bewildered parents (Jennifer Coolidge and Clancy Brown), who feel helpless watching their daughter stay out all night, abandoning a promising career and eschewing any romantic relationships. Each night, we see Cassie take on the predatory behaviors of guys well-played by Adam Brody, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, and Sam Richardson, leaving them with much food for thought. One day, a former classmate of hers, Ryan, now a pediatric surgeon, wanders into her coffee shop, recognizes her, and asks her on a date. Charmingly played by Bo Burnham, the talented filmmaker who brought us the fantastic Eighth Grade, he shares such a boisterous chemistry with Mulligan, you’d swear the film had transitioned into a rom-com, and you wouldn’t mind if it stayed that way. Luckily, Fennell has deeper, darker places to go while dangling this lovely romance in front of us as a way of lulling us into a false sense of security. Witness the way Ryan woos Cassie in a pharmacy by singing along to Paris Hilton’s woozy single, Stars Are Blind and you’ll beg for their lives to remain frozen in this indelible moment.
Cassie, however, remains fixated on a certain life trauma. Despite characters like Mrs. Fisher (Molly Shannon), who beg Cassie to move on, she knows she cannot. Cassie’s plans necessitate confronting her past, including two breathtaking sequences with a former classmate, Madison (Alison Brie) and with the head of her former university, Dean Walker (Connie Britton), both of whom excel with their brief but memorable screen time.
All of this leads to a third act you won’t see coming. Filled to the brim with comic actors, Fennell brings out the best in New Girl’s Max Greenfield and Glow’s Chris Lowell as seemingly nice guys who have no idea how monstrous they’ve become. Fennell has such command over tone, delivering visual and aural confections while undercutting them with real pain and consequences. Similarities to Killing Eve abound, not surprisingly, but with much more power and turn-on-a-dime emotions. Mulligan, in a career best performance, registers every micro-aggression with such specificity. You feel her protecting female victims of sexual violence with just the slightest crinkle in her eye or cocked head, much like Jodie Foster did in Silence Of The Lambs. Although campy and often funny on the surface, Mulligan’s performance simmers with feminist rage made all the more powerful by Fennell’s precise direction and Benjamin Kracun’s meticulously framed cinematography.
The first image of Cassie, splayed across a bar’s banquette, echoes the opening shot of A Clockwork Orange, diabolical and memorable. Nancy Steiner’s perfectly age-inappropriate costuming, and Michael Perry’s 80s teen comedy production design go far in keeping this delicate soufflé from collapsing. Add a classical version of Britney Spears’ Toxic to the mix and you’ve entered movie-movie territory, never to be confused with a typical Sundance-style, handheld, artless indie. For much of the film, you may find yourself not really understanding where things are headed, but trust me, Fennell has such blazing talent, you’ll likely gasp when everything perfectly comes together in its final moments, making this one of the year’s best films. Promising Young Woman simmers with #metoo fury, takes you to truly dark places, but has a pop sensibility to assure you that life can be wonderful if you simply learn and grow.
By Glenn Gaylord, Senior Film Critic
Promising Young Woman opens in limited theaters on December 25th, 2020. Available on demand January 15th 2021.