Promising Young Woman (2020)

‘Promising’ is a dynamic, forward-looking word that leans hard into the future – yet in writer/director Emerald Fennell’s confident debut, the ‘promising young woman’ of the title appears to have become arrested in the present, or even in the past. Where her peers have gone on to professional careers in their field, or to happy families of their own, or to living the white middle-class dream, Cassandra (Carey Mulligan) suddenly dropped out of her medical degree years ago, still lives with her parents, has no friends (besides her boss Gail, played by Laverne Cox), and works behind the counter in someone else’s ‘shitty coffee shop’, expressly rejecting any promotion offered. Although clearly smarter and more talented than those around her, Cassandra has been unable to move on from an experience at university, and is now an exemplum of potential ruined rather than realised, so divorced from the tick tock of everyday life that when her landmark 30th birthday comes around, she does not even notice. Clearly a product of damage, rooted to the spot by guilt, shame and deep, dark rage, Cassandra seems content with going precisely nowhere, and continuing her living death. Slowly, the film will show us why.

In fact, when not brusquely serving hot beverages, Cassandra moonlights as an educator of sorts. If revenge is often figured as ‘teaching someone a lesson’, this nocturnal avenger literalises the expression. Week after week, she goes to bars and clubs, pretending to be dead drunk. Week after week, a ‘nice guy’ volunteers to take her home, but instead tries to take advantage. And week after week, she reveals that her stupor is feigned, and confronts her wooers with the not-so-nice guys that they really are. This is an endless battle of attrition against exploitative, consent-dodging, rape-happy men whose ranks never seem to diminish. She is taking on toxic masculinity one dude-bro at a time, demonstrating that when it comes down to it, perhaps all masculinity is toxic, and perhaps all men – no matter how smartly dressed or well educated or politely spoken or performatively solicitous about her interests – are creeps, bastards or worse. This is a war that Cassandra is never going to win and that brings her no real profit – more an act of compulsion and a ritual of self-abasement than a meaningful enterprise that advances Cassandra in any way. Again, slowly the film will show us why.

Former classmate Ryan Cooper (Bo Burnham), now a paediatrician, happens to walk into the cafe where Cassandra works. Though Cassandra is at first guarded, Ryan really does seem like a nice guy. Maybe he is different from the others. For the first time in years, Cassandra is going out, and has a boyfriend. Even her parents (Clancy Brown, Jennifer Coolidge) start entertaining the idea, with tangible relief, that their little girl has finally broken her long spell of stagnation and grown up. Cassandra really is coming out of her shell – but in part because Ryan has mentioned another old classmate, Al (Chris Lowell), who has recently returned from years abroad and is about to marry a model. This news fills Cassandra with a new sense of purpose, and galvanises her into action. No longer content with random acts of didactic table-turning on morally dubious suitors, this avenger now has a more focused hit list, targeted at the individuals who turned a blind eye to what happened to her best friend Nina at a med school party – a party which Cassandra has never been able to forgive herself for failing to attend. For at last Cassandra sees an opportunity properly to enact her rape revenge by proxy, and as she ticks off her list the friend (Alison Brie) who refused to believe Nina, the Dean (Connie Britton) who dismissed the case, and the lawyer (Alfred Molina, haunted and haunting as the film’s moral crux) who helped cover up what happened, we know that this road leads inevitably to Al, from whom Cassandra has a chance at getting the satisfaction that she – and viewers with her – crave. 

Scored with upbeat pop-tastic cheer, and decorated in pastel pinks that both mark Cassandra’s arrested state as a little girl lost and bring a coating of playful fun to what otherwise feels a harrowing ordeal, Promising Young Women is a film of careful contradictions and incongruities. Certainly Cassandra’s sardonic wit ensures that everything comes sweetened with a twisted humour that keeps the narrative light and entertaining, much as the tormented heroine balances out her own bitterness by constantly feeding herself cake and candy. Candy is also the pseudonym that Cassandra adopts in the climactic sequence (elsewhere she calls herself Daisy, evoking Mulligan’s rôle in The Great Gatsby); it is as though, with this nom de guerre, ‘Candy’ is wearing her status as a honey trap in plain sight, while also evoking David Slade’s Hard Candy (2005), with its similarly vindictive seductress.

Besides expertly conveying her character’s strategic, manipulative intelligence and accusatory sarcasm, Mulligan also brings a palpable sadness to Cassandra, who is after all named for a tragic prophetess – a ‘promising young woman’ in a different sense – whose truths no one would heed until it was too late. For all its darkly comic surface, the film understands profoundly the frustration and addictiveness inherent in revenge – a pursuit whose ledger can never fully be balanced – as well as the endless, ramifying trauma of rape, affecting not just its immediate victims but others in its malign orbit. Cassandra can never forget, and her mission is to make those who have forgotten remember. Promising Young Woman, too, is out to open the eyes of its audience to what it is like for a woman to be casually objectified, humiliated, victimised and assaulted, and then gaslit, dismissed, ignored and buried. Along the way, it also reveals – through a woman’s eyes – just how pathetic and ridiculous, for all their self-defensive posturing, the perpetrators of such abuse really are.  

Nina is an absence in this film, kept out of the picture, and glimpsed only in photos as a child, with her whole future ahead of her. She is that other promising young woman who haunts the film like a ghost with the loss of all that she, like Cassandra, might have been. Others may have forgotten Nina, but for Cassandra, her friend is Nina forever, still a demanding presence even from beyond the grave. Fennell’s film is indeed a story of posthumous retribution, which is to say retribution that comes belatedly and offers only a highly qualified, rather uncomfortable brand of wish fulfilment. This is perhaps why the ending of Promising Young Woman has proven oddly ungratifying for so many – although perhaps no more ungratifying than the endless drunken hookups in which Cassandra engages at the film’s beginning, as she tries to scratch a scab that never seems to heal. There is a lesson here – a measured, mature one – about revenge as a promise cut short and forever unfulfilled, and about the Hydra-like horror, never completely dispelled, that predatory men represent to women. The satisfactions that this film delivers to Cassandra – and to us – from the opening sequence to the very end ring surprisingly hollow and leave an impression of a future where little will change, except maybe in tiny, barely significant increments. For the revenge plot here, in all its palatably generic familiarity, is really just sugaring the pill of a much harsher, more dispiriting message about a patriarchal system designed to toss women’s interests aside in the service of men’s. Like Cassandra herself, this film exposes a problem without (re)solving it. That is on us.

The final tonal disjuncture of Promising Young Woman, impossibly offering tragedy and triumph at the same time, reflects a vengeance that both has been perfectly plotted and played, and yet is never done. First-timer Fennell has crafted a colourful confection – with a decidedly bittersweet flavour – on which you’ll be chewing for some time after. Meanwhile, if you want a truly happy ending, think of Fennell herself as the woman of the title. The future is hers.

© Anton Bitel