Promising Young Woman is not only one of the best films of the year but will be one that will be sticking we me for quite some time.
On February 23rd, 2020 B.C. (Before Covid), my wife and I attended a screening of Portrait of a Lady on Fire. It was at that screening where I saw a trailer for a film that was just out of Sundance that captivated audiences and was coming soon to a theater near me. I was hooked. Then in March when the list of titles for the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival was announced, I saw that this film was included just weeks before it was scheduled for its April release date. Then we all knew what happened, and as countless films were being pulled off the schedule, I was hoping that at some point this would get released. So when it was announced that this film was going to be in theaters on Christmas Day, I was excited. Nine months of build and avoiding reviews and further trailers finally came to this moment, and I am excited to say that not only does Promising Young Woman not disappoint, but will feature quite prominently on my best of 2020 list.
Promising Young Woman is from writer and director Emerald Fennell in her feature directorial debut and stars Carey Mulligan as Cassie, a once highly regarded med school student who dropped out after a tragic event happened in her life. Now living with her parents and working at a coffee shop run by Gail (Laverne Cox) by day, by night she goes from bar to bar, luring unsuspecting men to see what they would do to a vulnerable woman who was under the influence. When Cassie has a run-in with one of her former classmates Ryan (Bo Burnham), she learns that the person who perpetrated the events that caused her to be where she is today is back in the country to get married, and she begins her path of revenge while also sparking a romantic interest in Ryan.
This is a captivating and necessary film thanks in most part to the spectacular screenplay from Fennell (who’s writing credits also include Killing Eve) as well as an award-worthy performance from Mulligan who toes the line from being an absolute badass at one moment where she wards of the unwanted gaze of three cat-calling construction workers to someone who is not afraid to show her emotions and play her cards exactly right. Every decision she makes from the start of the second act onward is something that is believable while also staying entertaining. You feel for her when she confronts the Dean of her former university or a former college classmate who just shrugged these events in question off. Everything she does is for, what she believes, is for getting a sense of closure. This all leads to a climactic third act that doesn’t tell you the whole story, while also being jaw-droppingly delivered. The restraint showed by Fennell in giving the audience just enough to get what happened without it coming off as an emotional timebomb does so much for how the film all comes together.
Given the main subject matter of sexual assaults on college campuses and what happens to not only those who are assaulted but to everyone in that person’s environment, we are given moments of levity to add a much-needed depth to Cassie’s character while not taking away the importance of the central story. Even the smallest thing like the use of Roman numerals may be seen as gimmicky but in the broader picture, they have a purpose. While some of the mechanics may be seen as “how was this pulled off”, these are minor quibbles of an otherwise near-perfect film.
Mulligan should, and more than likely will, get the kudos she deserves much in the same way that Rosamund Pike did for 2014’s Gone Girl. While this may be seen in some eyes as not a prestige role as, say, Frances McDormand in Nomadland, this is possibly the best performance of her career. With a killer soundtrack as well as many stellar supporting performances from Alison Brie, Clancy Brown, Jennifer Coolidge, Connie Britton, and an uncredited Alfred Molina, Promising Young Woman is not only one of the best films of the year and will be one that will be sticking we me for quite some time. It is in theaters now and will be released on video on demand sometime in mid-January. Grade: A (9.6/10)