In writer/director Emerald Fennell’s ambitious feature debut “Promising Young Woman,” Cassie (Carey Mulligan) was a promising young woman until she dropped out of medical school. She now lives with her parents, rarely goes out for dates, and her boss (Laverne Cox) at the coffee shop seems to be her only friend. However, Cassie does go out, a lot. At night, she goes to bars alone and pretends to be too intoxicated to keep her head up. Unsurprisingly, some random guy will make the move and bring her back to his place, trying to take advantage of her. When the guy brings her to bed and about to have sex with her, she will tell him to stop while appearing nearly blacks out. And if he doesn’t stop, he soon will realize that Cassie is not actually drunk. Next thing, he is going to have a shocking wake-up call that he will never forget for the rest of his life.

From the description above, “Promising Young Woman” may sound familiar. After I described the synopsis to one of my friends who didn’t know anything about the film, she literally said it just another “rape-revenge-film” in which women make the sexual predators payback. With violent and extreme graphic content, the genre somehow becomes a guilty pleasure throughout the long cinematic history by watching women hurt male attackers badly, but “Promising Young Woman” is so bold and confident that it doesn’t care to follow the trend because it’s not the justice women will get in reality.

Welcome to the unique, thrilling, yet honest revenge movie Fennell creates for you. The 34-year-old British talented dynamite is well known for writing several young adult novels, taking over Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s clever spy TV series “Killing Eve” as the second season showrunner and head writer (she received two Emmy nominations for this), and playing Camilla Parker Bowles in the sensational fourth season of “The Crown.” Marking “Promising Young Woman” as her feature directorial debut, Fennell is provocative and brilliant enough to blend dark comedy and revenge perfectly with deep emotion. The film is a fantastic #MeToo tale with Mulligan’s powerful, layered performance. 

Why Cassie ends up being a toxic anti-heroine is a burning question from the beginning of the film. Fennell reveals the answer slowly (which I won’t spoiler but it has something to do with her best friend in the medical school) in order to let audiences figure out she and her close friend were not just the victim of a single man but of the system that protected him and covered up what really happened. Despite being a smart and beautiful star student, Cassie can’t stop herself from taking vengeance on the system. Every night before she falls asleep, she stares at the photo of her friend next to the bed; and every time she comes back from her “mission,” she writes down those awful men’s names to keep the record.

Her fight against the system locks her inside the cage she creates by herself, and the self-destruction and the need for revenge consume her entirely. She’s empty inside out and no longer the promising young woman she used to be. Without a doubt one of the greatest actresses in her generation, Mulligan proves once again her skill of making every challenging role compelling to watch, and she masterfully makes Cassie’s rage vulnerable even though on the surface, she’s charming and always with a wicked smile (probably the most comic role Mulligan ever get). Also, give it up for costume designer Nancy Steiner (“The Virgin Suicides,” “Little Miss Sunshine,” and “Twin Peaks: The Return”) and makeup artists who give Cassie colorful looks of her dresses, hairstyles, and even nails. Her changing appearances throughout the film are just something that still stick with me days after the viewing. Thanks to these astonishing behind the scene works, Fennell is able to deliver the dark, realistic sexual assault with an eye-popping, stylish aesthetic.

Enters the bright Ryan (Bo Burnham, famous as a YouTube musical-comedian and as the writer/director of the killing good “Eighth Grade”), Cassie’s old classmate and now a pediatric surgeon. Their reunion opens a new page for Cassie. Ryan, for a very long time, is perhaps the first man to let her guard down and make her fall in love. The chemistry between Burnham and Mulligan is incredible, and Fennell makes their relationship so genuine and believable. The film almost switches to rom-com here with a lovely Paris Hilton’s “Stars Are Blind” musical montage. However, their history as classmates keeps drawing her back into the traumatic tragedy and the grief that still haunts her. Cassie also learns from Ryan that the guy who destroyed her best friend in the past is now back in the States. The news leads Cassie to her endgame of fighting male privilege and a corrupted system.

The way Fennell manages the endearing romance as well as terrifying revenge is, again, amazing, and the mixture of these two entirely different tones makes “Promising Young Woman” funny and sexy and genius and stylish. It’s a hell of a sucker punch. Even in its most intense scene, there’s a sense of candy-colored dark humor, which is not a big surprise from the showrunner of “Killing Eve.” It’s just a shame that Golden Globes classified the film as a drama although Focus Features submitted the film to the musical and comedy category.

“Promising Young Woman” is absolutely entertaining, but it also delivers a sad and thoughtful honesty. Fennell fearlessly depicts the collective rage against the rape culture that always allows men to get away without paying any price or responsibility. She also points out men are not the only group that shape the culture, sometimes, women are part of it too. The truth is not easy to swallow, and that’s certainly Fennell’s intention. The message is vital and necessary, hopefully can spark off more conversation. We have accomplished things already to make the culture healthier, yet there are much more we all can do. And this time, we must do better.

GRADE: A+

Contact me at jiajinpin@gmail.com.  Follow social at @jjpin

  • Distributor: Focus Features
  • Production: FilmNation Entertainment, Focus Features, and LuckyChap Entertainment
  • Director: Emerald Fennell
  • Writer: Emerald Fennell
  • Producer: Tom Ackerley, Ben Browning, Emerald Fennell, Ashley Fox, Josey McNamara, and Margot Robbie
  • Cast: Carey Mulligan, Bo Burnham, Laverne Cox, Alison Brie, Connie Britton, and Jennifer Coolidge
  • “Promising Young Woman” premiered at Sundance Film Festival 2020. Released in theaters Dec. 20, 2020 and onDemand Jan. 15, 2021

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