PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN

Trigger warning for this article: due to the nature of the film, I will be discussing sexual assault.

Since it was announced, Promising Young Woman has been at the top of my most anticipated watchlist. Now it’s finally available in the UK, with Oscars weekend looming, and after weeks of trying to assemble my thoughts, I’ve managed to put into words just some of the thoughts I have on this film.

Our protagonist here is Cassie, a young woman seeking accountability and revenge towards men who take advantage of vulnerable women as ‘easy targets’ in the devastation of the tragic loss of her life long best friend. Written and directed by Emerald Fennell and starring Carey Mulligan, it’s a tale of female rage, that though may feel topical in our #metoo era, is a story that has been building since the dawn of civilisation. In many, many ways, I am still shocked that a major studio greenlit it.

In her feature debut, Emerald Fennell here creates a bold, fearless and relentless film that takes no prisoners. Promising Young Woman is about accountability, rage, grief and consent.

The title is a reference to Brock Turner, the poster boy for rapists getting off easy. And he was actually convicted, granted he only served three months of a six month sentence. Throughout his trial, he was excused of proper sentencing to avoid ruining his future as a “promising young man”. Turner is a well known name, but Chanel Miller, the woman who spoke out about him (and even wrote a memoir aptly titled Know My Name) is far, far lesser know. Fennell flips the term on it’s head and makes it rightly about the female victim, which is Cassie’s motivation for her one woman mission: to make her friend’s name known. 

The character work here is excellent. I would now easily name Cassie as one of my all time favourite film characters, and the surrounding characters are all structured with such accuracy that placing them together on the screen makes for exhilarating dynamics.

The dialogue is concise, communicating a lifetime of women’s frustration with a calm clarity that made me jab my finger toward the scream and say “that’s it!!”. 

“It’s every man’s worst nightmare, getting accused of something like that.”

“Can you guess what every woman’s worst nightmare is?”

It’s calculated – not hysterical.

There are numerous, stand out scenes that capture every part of your attention, and make you audibly react. Whether you’re grinning ear to ear with cheesy joy or holding your breathe, heart racing in tension, it knows exactly how to play on your emotions and drag you along for the journey.

The rape/revenge genre does unfortunately exist in our world, and is predominantly directed by and for men with an uncomfortable habit of luxuriating in the women’s pain. Promising Young Women is not that. In fact, it is by design, very much the opposite of that.

Throughout the sensitive subjects of the film, Fennell keeps the environment safe by placing us in a hyper-feminine world full of pinks, hair bows and sing along songs. It also, despite being a film specifically about rape culture and sexual assault, gets its point across clearly and concisely without a single rape scene. It doesn’t even mention the word. Fennell shows she understands resolutely that the trauma doesn’t need to be shown because it’s known, then offers us a comfort blanket in the form of a Paris Hilton single to aid us through this important process in the most pain-free way.

The text does have it’s imperfections: borderline cliché moments, slightly melodramatic monologues etc – but I literally do not care. It’s not always great screenwriting in the traditional sense, but it suits the purpose of the film, and to me feels intentional to add to the unbridled feminine expression.

Carey Mulligan is simply phenomenal. 

She makes Cassie’s rage radiate off the screen, and gives a grounded, nuanced example of someone trapped in grief, refusing to move on out of loyalty. She depicts rage (a familiar female trait historically repressed and/ or mocked) with poise, innocence and a subtle defiance that I just can’t fathom. She is a tornado of power, that both excites and unsettles. I could write essays upon essays discussing the character and her motivations, because Mulligan delivers it so effortlessly I felt as if I understood the reasoning behind her every move.

Bo Burnham is perfectly precise. As Ryan he is the ultimate romcom man, the way women actually want, yet he goes above and beyond in proving his capability in deeper moments as the film progresses.

Laverne Cox also has a small role, complete with a septum piercing! She’s the soothing, fun constant in the film, and serves as the undoubted friend to ensure both Cassie and the audience are not going through this alone. 

Alison Brie as the antagonist female resistant to be a female ally is weighted excellently; Connie Britton appears with appropriate gravitas in perhaps the most underrated moment of the film; Alfred Molina is satisfying at just the right level as a reformed lawyer struck with guilt; and Molly Shannon’s one scene is brief, but beautiful, poignant, and impactful.

One of the biggest strokes of genius is easily the casting of beloved and trusted male figures from pop culture: alongside comedian Bo Burnham we have early 2000s heartthrob Seth Cohen of The O.C., Schmidt from New Girl, Veep’s Richard Splett, GLOW’s Bash Howard, even Superbad’s McLovin. They’re safe, familiar and nostalgic, and each plays the role with an uncanny “nice guy”ness that unsettles in the way women know. The choice in casting is the strongest case yet for following BAFTA’s suit and introducing a casting award in every film awards ceremony.

Just when you think the cast can’t possibly be any better, Jennifer Coolidge enters as Cassie’s mother: unsexualised, and BRUNETTE. It’s in the little details that Fennell excels, and it causes the film to rise higher and higher in it’s impact.

Narratively, it has a clear path. I was almost totally blind to the film going in, and was putty in the film’s hands as it subverted exceptions at every point in the story unfolding in front of you. Upon my first viewing, I cried when it ended: not because it was a tear jerker, but because it was affirming in that sickening, horrible way that makes your stomach sink to the floor.

Very mild spoiler here, but I have to say I was a little let down by Cassie not actually murdering anyone, but I enjoy the subtle grey area that doesn’t fully eliminate it as a possibility. I would love to see an alternative cut that’s basically a slasher movie, but I believe full heartedly that the finished film is the most effective way of telling this story, despite other hopes.

The ended is gutting, but in a very sad and real way. It’s honest, and showcases the reality of how frighteningly fast a situation can go south for a woman. Fennell says:  “I cannot imagine…[how] it plays out in any different way, no matter how much we want it to be the case.”. If the majority of the film conveys the theme with a touch of dark humour and excitement, the ending drives it home with the cold harsh truth.

As I’ve touched on briefly already, visually it’s irrefutably feminine. It’s a joy, and so refreshing to really, truly, see your own world proudly celebrated. Cinematographer Benjamin Kračun frames Cassie as a saviour with stunning visual religious references throughout, and colour floods every shot. It feels rich, lavish, and almost like an epic.

The soundtrack is a treat: girly bops from Charlie XCX, The Spice Girls, Paris Hilton and more. Fennell intentionally rebels against the “guilty pleasure” principle of pop music by female artists, and celebrates them as the deserve to be celebrated. The highlight of the soundtrack is undoubtedly Anthony Willis and Steven Baker’s string arrangement of Britney Spears’ Toxic, repurposed in a deliciously dark way that is sure to brings chills with each and every listen.

I’m so grateful this film was made. 

While Promising Young Woman is undoubtedly my film of the season, to experience it is not without it’s consequence. It’s been hard to process, and challenging to write about: how do I convey they way this film captures every essence of my female rage and daily fear without overexposing myself?

What I have always maintained as my greatest drawing force towards cinema is the power is holds to convey experience to the masses. Promising Young Woman is the greatest recent example of such. 97% of women in the UK have experienced sexual harassment of some form, and while it’s invigorating and validating to see it captured on screen for all to see; it’s no less disturbing.

Undoubtedly above all, however, it feels liberating. It’s for these reasons I’m mostly indifferent as to how many golden statuettes it takes home at this Sunday’s Academy Awards: it’s bigger than that. 

Emerald Fennell has knocked it out of the park. Seemingly possessed by some greater power, she channels the universal female experience into one, electric piece of filmmaking, and leaves no survivors.

It is a masterpiece, that I hope’s importance will only become more evident with time.

Promising Young Woman is available in the UK on Sky Cinema 

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