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‘Promising Young Woman’

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Carey Mulligan in a scene from the film. Photo from Focus Features

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

Writer-director-producer Emerald Fennel makes her feature film debut with the bold and disturbing Promising Young Woman, currently streaming on Amazon. This hybrid of a revenge thriller, psychological drama, and black comedy is one of the most relentless and riveting films of the past year.

Cassandra Thomas (Carey Mulligan) is a friendless thirty-year-old who hates her job and, seemingly, everything in her life. She lives with her parents (Jennifer Coolidge and Clancy Brown) in a home that seems never to have moved on from her adolescence.  Having dropped out of medical school seven years earlier, Cassandra has become the most reluctant and abrasive of baristas. She is absent in her own life to the point that she forgets her thirtieth birthday, revealed in a strangely hilarious and disturbing scene with her parents. Their gift is a suitcase, a less than subtle signal that they want Cassandra to move on or, at least, out.

Unbeknownst to her parents, Cassandra goes to clubs and bars, pretending to be drunk and allowing herself to be taken home by random men. As they are trying to taking advantage of her, she soberly confronts them with their behavior. She keeps track of them in a notebook hidden under her childhood bed.

Cassandra’s life derailed after the rape of her friend Nina by a fellow medical school student, Al Monroe (Chris Lowell). Nina and Cassandra had been friends from childhood, both the “promising young woman” of the title. Nina was both top of her class and a “party girl.” Her claims against Monroe were dismissed both by the other students, including friend Madison (Alison Brie), and the college itself. The case never came to trial due to the machinations of a vicious lawyer. While it is never specifically stated, Nina committed suicide shortly after the incident.

Things shift when a former classmate, Ryan (Bo Burnham), happens into the coffee shop. Now a pediatric doctor, Ryan recognizes Cassandra from school and asks her out. Ryan remains connected to the soon-to-be married Al. Cassandra is awakened to the possibility of real revenge and begins to set things in motion.

At the same time, she realizes that she is developing feelings for Ryan. After a chance encounter and a complication, what ensues is a rom-com with all common elements, including a montage set to a Paris Hilton song, and an uncomfortable meet-the-parents dinner. It is a clever diversion that skillfully boomerangs with the surfacing of a video of the rape. This change in course drives the remainder of the film.

Promising Young Woman is an intentionally messy film. Everything is skewed, from its saturated bright blues and cotton candy pinks to the soundtrack that provides startling commentary. The use of The King & I ballad “Something Wonderful” is hideously memorable. The constant off-centeredness makes for a tense, enthralling ride. The action is wound so tightly that the unraveling is all the more engaging, vacillating between deadly earnest and poisonously funny.

The film’s ensemble is first-rate. While most have only a single scene, there is a focus, detail, and reality in every performance. Coolidge and Brown hit just the right/wrong notes as the exasperated parents, a comic mix of disparity and depth. Gradually, they reveal that they are not as oblivious to their daughter’s struggle. Alison Brie’s Madison becomes the catalyst of a good deal of the later action. Brittle and self-absorbed, she is handily maneuvered during a drunken lunch, one of the ugliest and best-crafted scenes. 

As beau Ryan, Bo Burnham has that aw-shucks quality that masks hidden regrets and responsibilities. His genuine quality makes certain revelations all the more acute. Connie Britton is the dean who refused to validate Nina’s accusations; when the table is turned, Britton’s fears are palpable. Laverne Cox finds her usual easy charm as Cassandra’s boss. Molly Shannon has only the briefest appearance. As Nina’s mother, she tells Cassandra, “Move on, please … for all of us,” as she closes the door. (It is interesting to note that both Coolidge and Shannon are known for their broad comic portrayals; Fennel has drawn out beautifully understated performances.)

Alfred Molina plays Jordan Green, the perpetrator’s lawyer whose guilt over this case and many others like it has driven him to the edge. “On sabbatical” after a psychotic break, he is looking for redemption or at the very least forgiveness. It is an excruciating scene, both unique and resonant. 

But the heartbeat of the film is Mulligan. In her gifted hands, Cassandra is a spectrum of anger, hurt, and wry humor. It is a performance of unusual and awe-inspiring dimension. She finds the damage and the pride, never neglecting the smallest moments or details. She brings out the arch manipulator but does not neglect Cassandra’s underlying desire for some peace. Mulligan’s Cassandra is not so much a puzzle to be assembled but a shattered mirror:  even in its unlikely reconstruction, it is forever scarred and distorted.

Fennel skillfully keeps the violence off-camera until the last possible moment, never resorting to graphic imagery. Instead, the brutality lies in our imaginations. Fennel’s restraint heightens the moment when the visual savagery is unleashed.

Throughout the film, there are the horrifying refrains of “I did nothing wrong” and “boys will be boys” and “we were both drunk.” Fennel eviscerates the blame-the-victim culture. Promising Young Woman is a #MeToo treatise that never references the movement. Instead, it brilliantly tells its story with the darkest of humor and the cut of the sharpest scalpel.

Promising Young Woman is rated R for strong violence, language and drug use.