by Philip Price
Director: Emerald Fennell
Starring: Carey Mulligan, Bo Burnham & Alison Brie
Runtime: 1 hour & 53 minutes
From the opening second of Emerald Fennell's feature directorial debut that sears itself into your eardrums with Charli XCX's "Boys" it's abundantly clear we're in for a hell of a treat that is as pop-fueled and brightly colored as that introductory music track. Even as the music conjures images of pristine bodies dancing around pool parties that feature the color palette of a highlighter collection, Fennell immediately emasculates and disarms every male viewer that might already be dismissing her film by displaying what hapless, awkward grunts the majority of us look like when trying to appeal to the opposite sex in an alluring fashion. After immediately establishing the style in which she will relay her message Fennell's camera next wades in slow motion through a sea of nine to fivers scavenging for drinks that might hand them enough courage to approach vulnerable girls as the writer/director next establishes the key to “Promising Young Woman”: tone. Drawn from the anger of double standards and the (large amount of) satire contained in the line of thought that men could ever be more mature than women in any sense Fennell's screenplay - aided by a tour de force (and I don't use that phrase lightly) performance from Carey Mulligan - is as scathing as it is smart and as wild as it can be funny. It's almost contradictory how much there is to smile about while taking in the film given the serious nature of the topics being addressed, but Fennell finds such a satisfying way of conveying the revenge fantasy elements that it's next to impossible to not want to stand up and cheer every time Mulligan's Cassie leaves the room after delivering a gut punch of a one-liner to the creep, she just taught a lesson. Fennell has style for days, obviously, along with what were probably notebooks full of stories about encounters she and her friends have had with men who seemed decent enough but would still try to take advantage if the opportunity presented itself yet it is the way in which she is able to distill the daily indignities women routinely endure that ultimately reconciles the message with the mode. “Promising Young Woman” may be constructed to feel like an epic revenge fantasy and a sometimes sweet romantic comedy, but the situations depicted are unfortunately not as far-fetched as the calculated aesthetic would lead one to believe. To this extent, Fennell isn't interested in making a genre film as much as she is courting how cunning, meticulous, and self-aware one must be in order to exact revenge in the ways Cassie does here; she isn't trying to wipe the slate clean, she's looking to re-configure the establishment of that slate one piece at a time. In the immortal words of Paris Hilton, "That's hot" has never been more sincerely stated (or accurate) than when applied to “Promising Young Woman.”
Speaking more to the mode and the message and how each leans on the other as much as it does contrast it, this relationship is a facet as intentional as it would seem having Cassie eating something in almost every frame of the film is. While the messages of the film clearly deal in the likes of female power and revenge as much as they do romance and the kind of dismissive nature of Britney Spears' contributions to pop music and culture it's in this somewhat "tongue in cheek" comment that we touch on an actual thesis Fennell is putting forth in her film. This thesis being that things strictly defined as objects of interest to only women are also things immediately dismissed as silly and/or only good in an ironic fashion i.e., Britney Spears music, romantic comedies, fashion accessories, etc. Fennell argues that not only is this perception unfair, but that by being automatically slapped with this designation automatically creates a broader sense that what women find important is less important overall because these things aren't as important to men. It's not the main idea of the movie and Fennell doesn't spend too much time laboring over the intricacies of the scale on which different gender-specific prejudices take place, but by opening her film with a song as infectiously bubblegum as "Boys" through to the use of an all violin rendition of Spears' "Toxic" in the final act Fennell is making a statement by using them at all, but mostly through the fact she doesn't use them in an irreverent fashion. Adding to the heightened sense of style the film possesses, Fennel uses her soundtrack to illustrate just how effective and - strangely enough - how moving these songs often credited with carrying little substance can prove to be. Sure, you remind people Paris Hilton once had a music career and you're automatically going to get a few laughs, but we also feel the candor and irrefutable joy it brings not only to Cassie when she feels comfortable enough to embrace what she's been told is ridiculous since she was a teenager but has secretly enjoyed for just as long. Though Bo Burnham's Ryan might perform Hilton's sole hit with a strong sense of mockery it's also clear he finds a genuine freedom in being able to admit "Stars are Blind" is in fact catchy as hell. We all live with not only these pre-conceived notions of who we're supposed to be thanks in large part to extraneous pressure from friends and family, but as we become more involved and peculiar about how we portray ourselves on social media there is a sense one has to live up to the facade they themselves create. Fennell's film has a lot on its mind and again, while not explicitly about this particular decline in humanity, it draws on these modern experiences to highlight how sick its protagonist is of all the bullshit.
In essence, Fennell uses many of the themes and ideas she incorporates to carve out and better define her main character. Coming back around to the key element of tone is to discuss the fact that despite the sometimes dark and disturbing truths of the subject Fennell is discussing she has layered her film with the coping mechanism of comedy, albeit dark comedy. While it may sound like these comedic elements lighten the mood and therefore make the portrayal of this toxic, sexist culture we're all somewhat complicit in cultivating and/or perpetuating more bearable the fact of the matter is that Fennell's ability to tap into and find the humor in these more heavy scenes and sequences not only highlights the insight of what she's saying, but does so in an entertaining fashion that will engage audiences not typically inclined to want to see a movie about such topics. In other words, nothing about “Promising Young Woman” ever feels manipulative as it is by all accounts a movie about a woman dealing with a terrible trauma, but as hard as Cassie may try to maintain this stoic, icy figure who has only one objective left in life she can't help but to also be this very smart, very funny person that "must want something" as her boss at the coffee shop (Laverne Cox) puts it. And sure, maybe Cassie does yearn for something more normal deep down inside but given the obligation of justice she has committed her life to and the grand injustice she's seen the culture and respected institutions allow she can't help but to feel that sacrificing the romantic comedy aspects of her future for the blood bath of the revenge thrillers is the right and honorable thing to do. Cassie is as tough as she is vulnerable, someone who knows how to project the emotion a given situation calls for yet is consumed by this grief she can't let go of and it's to Mulligan's credit we run this gamut of emotions without ever feeling disoriented or unsure of who the character is. Mulligan is known for and will continue to be known for her wide array of roles in films that so far range from critical darlings like “Drive” and “Shame” to other critical darlings like “Inside Llewyn Davis” and “Wildlife” even if the majority of the movie-going public will know her as the Daisy Buchanan to Leo DiCaprio's Jay Gatsby, but it is with this film that Mulligan has crafted her most brazen character yet as she subverts all expectation set by previous performances instantly making this feel like the staple she will be most often identified by. "Carey Mulligan? Who is she again?" "You know, the main girl in ‘Promising Young Woman.’” "Oh yeahhhhhhhh!" From the moment Mulligan's eyes look directly into the camera the first time we know exactly who Cassie is, who she wants to be, and what she's all about; revealing both this supremely intelligent if not deeply damaged woman who purposefully embodies that old saying of "hell hath no fury like a woman scorned".
Of course, while this is wholly and completely, one thousand percent Mulligan and Fennell's movie there is also plenty more going on and plenty more to enjoy and consider that leads to this strange kind of sensation coming out of the film where you both enjoyed it but are stuck contemplating everything of what the film was saying. I would be remiss if I didn't mention DeathbyRomy's rendition of "It's Raining Men," that plays over the opening credit sequence as it only enhances Fennell's intent and assists in setting the table for the aforementioned style that is key to Fennell nailing her desired tone. Besides the soundtrack though, Fennell makes several other choices that aren't difficult to get behind and only further emphasize the relevance of the story while maintaining the feeling of constant surprise by the narrative. A key element in this is what some would refer to as "stunt casting" in that Fennell has littered her movie with recognizable names and faces to make the roster look impressive even if many of these people are in the film for less than a handful of minutes. That said, this type of casting doesn't feel pandering in any sense for, if nothing else, the fact we recognize these faces and associate mostly well-meaning, fun personalities with a lot of these actors only emphasizes just how fast one’s perception of someone can change. Adam Brody's Seth Cohen would never take advantage of a girl like that, Christopher Mintz-Plasse's McLovin was just happy a girl paid any attention to him there's no way he'd ever purposefully get someone high to take advantage of them, Max Greenfield's Schmidt...well, c'mon! It's Schmitty for heaven's sake! The "stunt" as it were completely working in favor of the intent and efficiently relays to the audience why and where the movie is coming from. Cassie moves through the world wearing cynicism like armor and shows little interest in anything more ambitious than holding down her job at the coffee shop and continuing to live under her parents’ roof (the great combo of Jennifer Coolidge and Clancy Brown) until a former classmate in the form of Burnham's Ryan re-enters her life and shows genuine interest in her. I adore Burnham's insanely intelligent and aware stand-up specials and fortunately as a 6'5" comedian accustomed to looking at the world from the outside in his awkward and nervous energy works in favor of his character here. Ryan is seemingly everything Cassie has come to believe men aren't, but this naturally complicates things for her and her mission as Ryan offers an option and a life Cassie had long since decided was out of the question. The two possess a sweet chemistry with one another and the development of their relationship while fresh and new is tinged by the fact they went to med school together meaning Ryan knows some of the people Cassie would rather forget. It's difficult to go further into the dynamic without spoiling much of Cassie's plans that she continues to carry out, but needless to say “Promising Young Woman” is a provocative tale uncompromising in its vision and - if not necessarily singular in its meaning - a strong voice to add to a meaningful and much needed dialogue. It's also entertaining as hell.