Promising Young Woman

Promising Young Woman ★★★★

It is a bold move to visually and thematically reference classics such as The Night Of The Hunter and The Red Baloon in your first feature film but actor turned writer/director Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman is nothing if not bold. It is a movie that dares to take on a difficult subject matter, makes risky narrative choices, and opts for a vibrantly kinetic aesthetic palette.

It stars Carrey Mulligan as Cassie, a barista by day who also moonlights as some sort of avenging angel targeting men who prey on vulnerable women. One day Ryan, an old friend from medical school played by Bo Burnham, walks into her tiny little coffee shop, reminding her of an incident from her past and setting her on a path of seeking revenge against those who had wronged her.

Plot mechanics though are not Promising Young Woman’s strongest suit. Not unusually for a first-time filmmaker, there are a couple of key revelations and shifts in tone that are either telegraphed or lack the refinement to achieve their full effect. The movie also, as Fennell herself put it, is a very very low budget production, and despite her and her cinematographer Benjamin Kracun’s best attempts to define those limitations, there are scenes that do betray the movie’s financial constraints.

And yet, by the time movie’s climax rolls around, there is an undeniable wave of emotions that lies somewhere between catharsis and heartache. Because at its core Promising Young Woman is not a revenge flick. It is instead a keenly observed, subtly complex, and ultimately tragic character study.

Carrie Mulligan’s Cassie is not your typical cold-blooded seeker of revenge. She is, as the title would suggest, a multi-faceted, multi-dimensional human being who could have gone on to live a life full of love and happiness if she had inhabited a kinder and more just world. She is angry at the world but doesn’t want to be. She wants to be able to trust again, to be vulnerable, and allow herself the luxury to enjoy the unexpected. But the protective shell of cynicism that she has built around herself not only keeps getting in the way but it keeps getting reinforced owing to the actions of the people around her.

That is until she meets Burnham’s Ryan. The sheer charm of their buoyant and cheerful relationship is a much welcome ray of light. Mulligan and Burnham create a really heartening borderline enviable dynamic that, contrary to the usual demands of dramatic fiction, you wish would just stay that way and that the movie would go out on a happy note.

Which is a real victory for Mulligan who has slowly been edging out of her ingenue years with gloriously mature performances in the likes of Mudbound and Wildlife and here continues that trajectory by creating a character that lies at the intersection of strength, fragility, spite, regret, independence, and yearning.

There is a part of you that admires her systemic takedown of the patriarchy and the pillars that uphold it while another part of you wants her to untether herself from the damaging clutches of a broken system and pursue healthier pursuits.

A concern also shared by Gail, Cassie’s rather candid boss played by Laverne Cox who forms what is actually quite an impressive cast of supporting players. Bo Burnham with his bumbling charisma and lanky adorkable energy has the most screentime and narrative significance of the lot but there are also interesting turns from the likes Jennifer Coolidge, Sam Richardson, Alison Brie, Connie Britton, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Max Greenfield, and Alfred Molina.

Each of whom represents a certain specific subsection of the culture that sustains the environment of privilege that perpetuates the systematic victimization of women in our society. Some of these characters have better material to play with than the others but on the whole, they add to the pieces that make up the portrait of the lost promise of the many young women to whom the movie is dedicated.

And it is somewhat poetic that its power comes from a young actress finally liberating herself from the pixie cut fantasies of Hollywood’s overwhelmingly male gaze and teaming up with another female voice to produce what might be her best work yet.

Promising Young Woman is a little rough around the edges and lacks the finesse of a bigger production but makes up for that with its powerhouse central performance, adherence to emotional honesty, and unapologetic - if not comprehensively cross-sectional - feminist point of view.

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