Actress Emerald Fennell makes a stunning feature directorial debut in Focus Features, Promising Young Woman. The film opens with a trio of debaucherous males Jerry (Adam Brody), Jim (Ray Nicholson), and Paul (Sam Richardson), scoping the nightclub scene in search of someone to take home. Jerry succeeds and ends up taking the intoxicated Cassandra (Carey Mulligan) home. Thinking he’s going to score, Jerry is in for the surprise of his life. Cassandra turns the tables on him, and that’s when the genius of Promising Young Woman begins. You see, Cassandra is a young woman, traumatized by a tragic event in her past, who seeks out vengeance against those who cross her path.
Once a promising medical student, Cassandra dropped out of school and now spends her days working in a coffee shop with her boss Gail (Laverne Cox). Cassandra’s parents (Jennifer Coolidge & Clancy Brown) have opposing viewpoints on what their daughter should be doing with her life, but Cassandra is content. One day, as fate would have it, an old college acquaintance Ryan (Bo Burnham), stops in for a java cup, and they begin a relationship. However, we all know what is done in the dark will always come to light. And sometimes the sins of the past come back to haunt us.
From the initial trailers for Promising Young Woman, I was expecting director Emerald Fennell to take the film down a vigilante route akin to Death Wish or The Brave One with loads of black comedy thrown in for good measure. Promising Young Woman does have dark and humorous moments in particular scenes involving Sam Richardson and Christopher Mintz-Plasse. However, there’s much more to the film. Watching the movie with my spouse, it dawned on me at its core; the film is genuinely about toxic behavior, particularly in men and those in power.
For me, Emerald Fennell’s script never paints Cassandra as a vindictive or scorned woman. Instead, I found her behavior justified. The situations these men find themselves in and facing Cassandra’s wrath is by their own doing. Fennell makes the wise choice to showcase both sides of the coin and attack victim-blaming head-on. Just because you take someone home doesn’t guarantee that something sexual will happen, and you have to know when to stop. Fennell’s script also holds women accountable who try to victim shame or blame without ever knowing the full story.
One particular scene where Cassandra goes toe to toe with the Connie Britton character (her former dean of admissions) is worth the admission price alone. Granted the ladies don’t engage in some fisticuffs or hair pulling. Instead, it’s an intelligent dialogue exchange that shows how easy power can shift. Bearing a striking resemblance to a young Kim Cattrall in the film, Carey Mulligan deserves every award mention and accolade she is sure to receive for her performance.
Fully committing to the role, Mulligan has never been better. Whether it’s moments where she’s confronting a lecherous male or reuniting with someone from her past, the British actress is great. I loved her scenes with Bo Burnham and their kindred chemistry. Burnham’s comedy background brings light-hearted moments to the film when needed. I must warn you that Promising Young Woman takes a surprising turn in the film’s third act, leading to an ending that will divide audiences. However, after discussions with my wife and a fellow film critic, I stand by the director’s decision to end the film the way she did.
Featuring beautiful cinematography, a haunting version of Britney Spears “Toxic” that plays in the film’s third act, and an award-worthy performance from Carey Mulligan, Promising Young Woman, is highly recommended. It is a powerful debut from director Emerald Fennell and a film that will start much-needed conversations.
Final Grade B+
Promising Young Woman opens in theaters today.