Promising Young Woman

Promising Young Woman

Promising Young Woman is all the proof needed to establish an Oscar for Best Casting. Carey Mulligan is every bit as in control of this film and her character as you've heard, but everyone beneath her on the call sheet is going just as hard. This is not to say that the future Academy Award for Best Casting in a Feature Film should be totally dependent on the quality of the performances. The Oscar would go to the casting director(s) of the film (Lindsay Graham and Mary Vernieu, in this case) for assembling a spread of actors perfectly suited to the story, the roles and each other.

It's difficult to separate the work of casting directors from work of the film director. In her writing and directing feature debut, novelist and actor Emerald Fennell unmistakably fashioned this film with fixed intentions. The casting of each role plays on the actor's persona and/or past roles. Adam Brody and the other men who play Cassandra's (Mulligan) have a track record of playing nice guys, a term the film uses frequently and with expertise. He was Seth Cohen. Christopher Mintz-Plasse was McLovin. Sam Richardson was the only decent human on Vice.

Then there's Jennifer Coolidge playing Cassie's mother, who first came to prominence for being a sexual object in American Pie. She's now playing against that type, as is Molly Shannon who doesn't have a single real punchline. And of course Carey Mulligan is essentially the opposite of her own breakout role in An Education. In that film, Jenny was far too young to be sexually involved with the man she was, and too naïve to realize it. As Cassie, Mulligan is on the other end of the spectrum, having gained her wisdom through unfortunate circumstances and actively weaponizing her knowledge about the worst parts of male sexuality to teach lessons.

Fennell's intentions extend deep into Promising Young Woman. Her song choices that feature lyrics are almost all songs that reinforce a perception of women as intensely desiring physical love or at least romantic male companionship - "Boys," "It's Raining Men," "2 Become 1," Paris Hilton's "Stars Are Blind" - as well as some excellent uses of "Toxic," one of which flips that on its head. She's not discrediting those songs on their own, but she is using them for more than just eardrum dressing. There is intention.

There is intention in the costuming. Designed by Nancy Steiner, Cassandra's outfits for her vengeful escapades become more and more animated and outrageous as we move to her last target in the film. There is intention in the dialogue. Men says things like "She's all yours", "my Susan", and "I didn't know the woman was taken," underlining the possessive attitude all the men in the film have about women - even the only one who has nothing to answer for. There is intention in the production design and art direction (Michael Perry and Liz Kloczkowski, respectively). Cassie's parents' home has furniture covered in plastic and chandeliers in every room reflecting their life in a past culture. The design and dressing of the final major locale is covered in masculine accessories and accent choices. The clubs are dark and creepy, which is to say they look like clubs, but they take on an extra creepiness with the spotlighting DP Benjamin Kračun uses in them.

Promising Young Woman is dense. There is symbolism, foreshadowing, and red herrings around every corner. A piece of jewelry that survives a fire is representative of motive and its very shape, but it also serves a plot point. A mural behind Cassie in one scene hints at another spot she will occupy. There is a motif that Fennell develops that looks as though it will make an appearance at the climax, and perhaps it does in an altered form. There are many more, and more beyond what a single viewing could catch or decipher. (What is the meaning of Cassie's frequent standing in front of industrial symbols? Is representative of destruction and forward motion or is she stuck in the past?)

Let's not forget the message of the film. It could be boiled down to something as simple as, "Don't rape people," but Fennell also pays attention to the moral gray areas. Who is worse - the one who acts or the one who stands by? There isn't any use in her offering up a concrete answer because neither are acceptable. Yet, for all the film has to show and tell about the abhorrence of not nice "nice guys" and the language and costumes they use to disguise themselves, Fennell makes room for narratives about reform.

One reform is successful - genuine, impassioned, and frank about the past. Another is not. A third is forced and painful, but revelatory. Every one has the opportunity to change regardless of whether Cassie is involved or not. She does have a somewhat problematic relationship to her positive motives as is noted by a character who we assume has the right to make such an assessment, but she is judicious. When a character calls her insane, she says, "I really don't think I am." It is up to us to decide. One interpretation of this film would hold her just as or even more responsible for toxic masculinity because she searches for it, potentially creating it where it would (no longer) exist. Promising Young Woman is in no way endorsing that view. Cassie is something of an avenging angel, and each character who encounters her in this mode gets to choose which word in that alliteration gets the emphasis.

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