PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN is An Upsetting, Necessary Watch

The internet was understandably agog over the first trailer for Promising Young Woman, the feature debut from Killing Eve season two showrunner Emerald Fennell. The slow strings arrangement of Britney Spears’ “Toxic” combined with Carey Mulligan’s anything-but-helpless vindicator of violated women everywhere revved people for a revenge movie for the #MeToo era. As the credits rolled after the sold-out Sundance premiere, Fennell proved such a movie for this point in time isn’t as clean, isn’t as devilishly cathartic as we might hope. It’s not Uma Thurman with a katana, and that’s exactly why it’s necessary.

Mulligan’s Cassandra gave up her lifelong dream of becoming a doctor following an incident at her med school. This act is a cloud that hangs over her head, refusing to allow her to forget it and move on as so many people in her life want her to. She’s 30 and still lives with her parents (Jennifer Coolidge and Clancy Brown); she works a nothing job she doesn’t like at a coffee shop. All so that she can go out every week and enact retribution on men who use a nice-guy charm to take advantage of women who are too drunk to say no.

That in and of itself seems like it should make for a fist-pumping romp to stick it to all the “Not All Men” out there. But Fennell is doing something far grimmer and far more serious than that. We’re supposed to think Cassandra is the avenging angel, and we delight in her various gotchas on dudes at bars. But the sudden reunion with Ryan (Bo Burnham), a former classmate, changes things for her. She’s not just in a vacuum. Like Thurman’s Bride, she’s getting closer to her ultimate goal of checking off specific people from a list, those who enabled the aforementioned act.

Carey Mulligan sits on a leather seat looking very drunk in Promising Young Woman

Focus Features
But what’s the reality of doing this kind of thing; of devoting yourself to revenge? It’s lonely, and reckless, and for every moment we grin at another well-planned sting, we likewise feel bad for Cassandra. Bad that she has to do this, bad that she is doing it, and bad that nobody had done it sooner.

Fennell tackles the heavy subject with heavy amounts of humor. There’s a lot of darkly comedic moments, yes, but also some sweet and legitimately heartfelt ones. You care about Cassandra and her budding relationship with Ryan. You don’t want her to somehow blow a chance at happiness with a genuinely nice guy. And it’s those moments, the ones not devoted to revenge, that make Promising Young Woman the serio-comic tragedy it is. It seems inevitable. She’s never going to “just forget” about what happened, because so many real women can’t either.

Carey Mulligan in Promising Young Woman

Focus Features
Promising Young Woman uses our shared love of watching the righteous infliction of retribution to make a much more important point about a culture which gives promising young men the benefit of the doubt it doesn’t give to promising young women. And Fennell doesn’t allow her film, for all its external signifiers, to just be a throwaway revenge flick with a post-2019 bent. It’s got too much to say, and too many mirrors to hold up.

Featured Image: Focus Features

Kyle Anderson is the Senior Editor for Nerdist. You can find his film and TV reviews here. Follow him on Twitter!

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