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VOD Review: Promising Young Woman

January 15, 2021

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

Cassie (Carey Mulligan) is the titular “promising young woman” in director Emerald Fennell’s ultra stylish and unforgettable feature debut of the same name.

Cassie used to be in med school and was on her way to becoming a doctor, until a shocking and traumatic incident forced her to drop out of university. Now she works in a coffee shop during the day, and pretends to be blackout drunk in clubs at night, tricking opportunistic men into taking her home so that she can teach them a lesson when they try to take advantage of her.

This is how we first meet her in the film; faking inebriation at a night club as Charli XCX’s “Boys” blares on the soundtrack. A man (Adam Brody) takes the bait, and non-consensually makes moves on her while she appears to be near the point of passing out, at which time she reveals her sobriety for the ultimate shock.

We then cut to her adding another strike in red pen to her notebook. It’s a solid opening that is both unsettling and atmospheric, while also maintaining some mystery as to what is actually going on, and instantly gripping us with its strong sense of style. We soon learn that Cassie has dedicated herself to getting revenge on the sort of creepy dudes who get away with it by passing themselves off as nice guys in order to justify taking advantage of women, which makes up the story of Promising Young Woman.

Cassie is forced to confront the trauma of her med school days in a more concrete way when one of her former classmates, Ryan (Bo Burnham), walks into the coffee shop, and she tentatively lets him into her life. Now an established pediatric surgeon, Ryan seems to be a changed man, and is successful in the way that she wasn’t able to be. Burnham, a standup comedian, is an inspired casting choice, as he perfectly balances his charming and easily likeable screen presence with lingering questions of whether his character is actually a nice guy or a secret douchebag like the rest of them.

Fennell, who also wrote the film’s screenplay, does an excellent job of blending genres. Her film oscillates wildly but seamlessly from dark comedy to searing revenge fantasy and powerful character drama, while also pointedly tackling themes like sexual assault, victim blaming and survivor guilt. She keeps her cards close to the chest for a good portion of the running time, keeping us guessing as to her protagonist’s true intentions. Benjamin Kracun’s vibrant and colourful cinematography adds to the tone, and is evocative of the film’s sickly sweet, candy-coloured world where nobody but Cassie wants to confront the darkness lurking underneath the surface.

Mulligan is incredible in the leading role, delivering a performance that feels like a career reinvention, especially when compared to her breakout role in An Education over a decade ago. Mulligan’s work in that film was also compelling, but for entirely different reasons, and it’s actually fascinating to view Cassie as a sort of flip side to Jenny in An Education. Where as that character was a naive teenage girl being taken advantage of by an older man, in Promising Young Woman, she is fully grown and figuring out how to gain the upper hand.

Here, Mulligan fully immerses herself in the role of someone whose behaviour is as cunning as it is unpredictable. She does an excellent job of portraying Cassie’s PTSD, showing how her erratic actions are informed by deep, unresolved trauma. The supporting cast features some inspired casting choices, including Laverne Cox as Cassie’s friend and co-worker at the coffee shop; Jennifer Coolidge as her kind but dimwitted mother; and Alfred Molina (in a perfect An Education reunion) as a lawyer. Meanwhile, other familiar faces like Allison Brie, Molly Shannon and Max Greenfield pop up throughout, and it’s compelling to watch how these comedic actors subvert our perceptions of them.

I must also give a mention to the great soundtrack of pop songs that help set the tone for many of the film’s scenes. The needle drops here are incredible, with a handful of perfect song choices including Paris Hilton’s “Stars Are Blind,” which provides the backdrop for a giddy drug store dance between Cassie and Ryan. Performed with gleeful abandon by Burnham, it’s a wonderfully staged and knowingly cheesy sequence that feels like it could have been the centrepiece of a sincere rom-com, had it not been placed ironically in the middle of a much darker movie. I will also never hear “Angel of the Morning” the same way ever again, and I mean that in the best possible way.

I’m not sure if every single scene in the first half of the film works equally well, including an awkwardly long encounter with a man played by Christopher Mintz-Plasse, and a road rage incident that almost feels like it’s out of a different movie. This isn’t really a criticism, mind you, it’s more of an observation, and there is so much else to praise about the film that I’m not holding this against it. These scenes also add to the unpredictable tone of the piece, and do help throw us off the scent of where it is headed.

This is one of those films that I can’t say much more about, because it keeps shifting and subverting our expectations. Yes, it’s a revenge thriller, like the trailers promised. But it’s also a surprisingly moving drama about how people process trauma, especially when the perpetrators have moved on while the victim wasn’t able to. Something quite unexpected happened to me while I was watching the film; at the end of it, I spontaneously started crying. I think it was partially a direct response to what was happening onscreen, and also a cathartic release from everything that came before.

With a gripping performance by Mulligan, and an intoxicating sense of style, watching Promising Young Woman is an experience that I won’t soon forget. It will make you deeply uncomfortable and then very angry, but that’s the whole point. This is a blistering film, building towards a positively stunning final sequence that ranks as one of the best endings of any film in recent memory. See this movie, and leave plenty of time to think and talk about it afterwards.

Promising Young Woman is available to watch on demand for a 48-hour rental period as of today, more information can be found right here. It’s being distributed in Canada by Focus Features.

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