In the opening act of Emerald Fennell’s award-winning debut feature, Promising Young Woman, three male friends drinking in a nightclub complain about women who suppress their desires. Sprawled on the couch behind them, a young woman sits with her head drooped in a drunken haze. One man steps forward and seems to be concerned for her well-being. She searches around for her lost phone, which the man identifies as her only means to call a rideshare. He offers to take her home, but where does he take her instead? His house.
Still drunk and unable to stand, he pours them both another drink, hers topped to the rim while his sits only a third full. ‘You’re so beautiful,’ he tells the woman, and he starts kissing her neck. She can barely ask what he’s doing before he goes down her body to her crotch and ignores her each time she resists.
Then, her eyes suddenly open, and we see she is stone-cold sober.
“Hey!” she demands, ‘What are you doing?’
The scene is set, and it’s clear this is no ordinary encounter. She looks him dead in the eyes and shows him that she is awake and alert. The woman calmly, almost menacingly, sobers him up to realize how his actions were not okay each step of the way. That he may never pick up another woman without being concerned that she’s faking her inebriation is the reward.
It’s an exciting sequence, given the anticipation of violence that would be expected of a revenge film. Movies like Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch and David Slade’s Hard Candy starring Elliott Page have depicted revenge in graphic detail. That Promising Young Woman chooses to reserve the violence is an unexpected choice that helps to layer our central character and her trauma.
When we meet Cassandra (Carey Mulligan), we learn that she has dropped out of medical school after her childhood best friend, Nina was sexually assaulted by a group of boys who went unpunished. Cassandra has since struggled to find her place in the world. Instead, in between shifts working at her friend Gail’s (Laverne Cox) cafe, she goes out to clubs at night, pretends to be drunk to the point of incapacity, and is taken home by a man willing to take advantage of her vulnerable state. Then Cassandra startles them with a sober reckoning.
The way that she and many other women fear meeting men in public is how she wants these men to feel when they go to a club. They shouldn’t trust women because, as she tells one nightclub patron in a fedora hat who laments that Cassandra was sober all along, women like her are going around fooling men to take them home. Some are even armed with scissors.
But central to this story, and perhaps the softest phase of the film, is when Cassandra’s former classmate Ryan Cooper (Bo Burnham) shows up at the coffee shop, recognizes her, and asks her out. Vehemently against dating men, she spits in his coffee, and he drinks it. She gradually opens herself up to the possibility of having a safe courtship with a man until Ryan reveals that he remembers Al Monroe (Chris Lowell), their former classmate and Nina’s abhorrent attacker, and he’s back in town about to get married.
Cassandra spirals with this information, wanting desperately to bring Al to justice. One scathing scene shows Cassandra confronting the Dean of the school (Connie Britton). It carries immense weight as Dean Walker cannot remember the crime brought to her by Nina just a few years prior but remembers Al Monroe (Chris Lowell) fondly. “He just came to speak at the school last week,” she remarks without a hint of recognition of the allegations against him when he was a student.
The artful and frequently surprising tone of Promising Young Woman becomes an aesthetic that highlights Cassandra’s incongruous reality. She keeps a notebook tallying each man who tries to take advantage of her when they take her home from the nightclub, and, as is clear from her parent’s concerns, she has lost her grasp on creating a life for herself. She still lives at home, hardly earns any money at the coffee shop, and is directionless. But internally, what she is trying to accomplish is justice for Nina.
The screenplay, also written by Emerald Fennell, expertly navigates the balance between right and wrong, which shifts with each minute because it’s rare for Cassandra to feel secure. In one scene, she may be acting so drunk that a man sticks his finger coated with cocaine into her mouth, while in another, she dances and lip-syncs with Ryan in a pharmacy to Paris Hilton’s Stars are Blind.
The intersection between light and dark, moving forward and triggered backward, makes Emerald Fennell’s directorial debut so enticing. Cassandra targets the people who wronged Nina, which includes her former friend Madison (Alison Brie), who turned a blind eye to the ‘drama’ of that fateful night, and Al Monroe’s lawyer (Alfred Molina), who admits he dug through the girl’s trash to get his client’s charges dropped.
She uncovers guilt, confession, and resentments that have extended from the assault. Cassandra is the jolt that is waking these people up from their remorseless slumber, and that their lives will never be the same is the point.
Indeed, the story’s originality is a refreshing approach to a subgenre that continues to voice these harrowing, criminal encounters that women face daily. Cinematographer Benjamin Kracun captures Cassandra’s journey with creatively staged imagery, and the film features a cracking soundtrack that includes Spice Girls, Donna Missal, and Sky Ferreira. Carey Mulligan is an outstanding casting choice who can be equally as expressive as the droll of her disenfranchised voice. It’s hard to picture another actress in the role who can tackle the ebb and flow of Cassandra’s journey with such veracity. Her chemistry with Bo Burnham is genuinely charming, and the rest of the supporting cast, including Molly Shannon and Max Greenberg, are seamlessly integrated.
But what’s most revealing is that the violence you expect in the film is the cruelty that happens to Cassandra. And by the film’s end, you’ll know that justice has been served.