Promising Young Woman

Promising Young Woman ★★★★½

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

There’s so much here. I guess the first thing to get out of the way is that none of this is real. Sure, a few scenes hint at realism a little too well, but Promising Young Woman isn’t tethered to accuracy. Med school, I’m pretty sure, isn’t constant blackouts and weekly rape accusations. People don’t just sail through at the top of their class not really trying. Carey Mulligan does not look like she just turned 30. Much like, say, Russian Doll, this work deals with interiority and symbols, with the “truth” of pain, friendship, heartbreak, death wishes, and simmering rage. It’s not a clear-eyed, righteous political rage, although I came to this expecting that. It’s a dreamlike, trauma-informed, wounded rage, nursed inside the self because the outside world has repeatedly signaled its indifference to its source. The revenge is a fantasy— not just because it is stylized and dazzlingly colored, and not like Kill Bill or any other take-no-prisoners woman’s revenge film dreamt up by men. Cassandra fully understands that she, like her namesake, will be dismissed and disbelieved. She is resigned to the ugliness of her peers and supposed protectors, and picks at her scabs just to feel something, to stave off boredom. So she, and the film as a whole, make no real effort to win us over. She goes through the motions of exposing truths, but she can gain no peace from it, because no one cares. This is a film dripping with contempt (the whole pink and blue love story in the center??), so much so that it ventures beyond mere callousness and bluntly portrays the vulnerability and pain behind that contempt. Why bother trying to pretend you’re too cool?

If this sounds childlike, stunted, and adolescent, well it is. The girlishness is not subtle: the ever-present pink, the juice box, the braids, the YouTube makeup tutorial, the stickers on the computer, the rainbow fingernails, the pop music (this film has an incredible soundtrack— I am reminded, watching this, of how effectively pop music has channeled female frustrations and anger).

So, childlike, yes. This is not a playbook for how to fight rape culture, and it is not an empowering fantasy of a no-fucks-to-give fighter living her best life. It is a darkly honest portrayal of what defeat— and rare, cautious hope— really feels like. Cassandra is inviting death even before the stunning third act. Her ambivalence to living is what makes her fearless, and what deflates those who might actually do her harm. Her only moment of true fear is when the lawyer expresses passionate remorse. This display of regret and humility terrifies her because it implies she can progress. It means life is no longer predictable, that she could pay attention and re-engage, and that it could mean something. And we see that all of these confrontations have been pleas for help after all, pleas for affirmation, but she forgot what she might do if anyone actually took her up on it. 

This is all deeply relatable, not just as a woman in sexist society, or as a person who struggles with suicidal ideation, but as a citizen of a crumbling America, who has only seen the powerful repeatedly escape consequence, the same predictable players make excuses and protect bad actors, and the same challengers (women, Black men, anyone with their hands on the kind of dirt that could ruin a career), be ground up and tossed aside with barely a “what did you expect.” And yes, this is a deeply white film, arguably a film *about* whiteness, certainly about white femininity and the immobilization that lays beyond white tears. 

This film has no illusions that some good guy will sweep in and lovingly accept our contempt (that coffee spitting scene is hot, though). It can’t shake the angsty, girlish daydream of full obliteration as a justified response to fucked up life. But also, it isn’t so dead-eyed that it can’t find the romance in beyond-the-grave retribution. A dangerous fantasy, perhaps, in that it stifles political action, but a real one, all the same.

White_light liked these reviews