Sundance 2020: ‘Promising Young Woman’ is a Film of Contradictions

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Promising Young Woman poster

Written and directed by Emerald Fennell, Promising Young Woman is a tale about how the thirst for vengeance, guilt, and loneliness make for a dangerous combination, when Cassie (Carey Mulligan) decides to seek retribution against the so-called “nice guys”, after the death of her best friend Nina. “She looks completely wasted!,” “Oh man, what I would do to her!,” “She doesn’t look so good, I think I’ll go see if she needs help.” These are just some of the phrases uttered by a group of men as they stand huddled around a bar – like vultures waiting to descend – as they watch a woman who appears to have had one-too-many, after a long day at work. As she sits, head lolling to the side, one of them approaches and offers to help her get home to make sure nothing bad happens to her.

Thinking this man who stoops down, speaking with a soft non-threatening tone is ‘one of the good guys’ she accepts his assistance believing he genuinely wants to help her. When they end up at his home, he persuades her to have just one more drink and begins to force himself on her until she suddenly looks up and he realizes she’s not actually drunk. And so begins the viewer’s look into the complicated and at times the heartbreaking world of Cassandra Thomas – Cassie to her friends.

Like the fairytales we grew up reading and watching, Cassie is a curious mix of light and dark. During the day she works as a Barista at a small café run by her friend Gail (Laverne Cox), where she serves up biting wit to customers that’s as strong as the coffee she makes them. Though her personality would be described as acerbic, Cassie’s wardrobe seems like a contradiction of that. She wears her hair in simple French braids, light airy flowing dresses, cotton leotards covered in cute motifs like cherries, paired with shorts and white canvas sneakers. During her nighttime excursions, Cassie switches up her outfits to match the persona of her alter ego of that night. On a Friday she could in the sensible business suit of a tired overworked receptionist, glad the week’s finally over, and on Saturday dressed for a night of fun in a sequined mini with heels, but no matter what she’s wearing, one thing is for certain…men only see her as prey.

As Cassie’s quest progresses with each mark she makes in a secret notebook kept bound by a multicolored scrunchie, her life moving in a cycle of work, home, bar, work, home, bars, it comes to a sudden stop when Ryan (Bo Burnham) an old college classmate walks into the café and upends Cassie’s carefully constructed life. With off-kilter humor that attracts and intrigues her, Ryan endears himself to Cassie, and with the encouragement to finally live her life, Cassie reluctantly accepts Ryan’s advances and agrees to go on a date.

At first blush, everything seems to be going well. They like the same music, have no issues being complete dorks around each other, and he even gets along with her parents, but if you look close enough you’ll see that beneath that charming demeanor and open smile are a few tendencies that not only make you question Ryan, but reveals just how good Fennell is at creating layers to her stories and characters.

As mentioned before, Promising Young Woman is a film about contradictions. Everything from the music scored by Anthony Willis, to the characters, costuming and set and production design themselves are about opposites.  Some of these opposites are about more than showing how the characters appear to others, they’re about exposing in very subtle ways how easily we miss the red flags certain behaviors would throw up if they came from other people. While Promising Young Woman is very good at showing the ways women are deceived, betrayed and victimized by men, there are two very distinct storylines where this – in my opinion – is handled brilliantly, and it in part lies with the acting.

The first is Ryan. He’s charming, nice, has a good job as a pediatric surgeon and the quintessential “boy next door” attractiveness that draws Cassie out of her shell, and easily endears him to her parents Stanley (Clancy Brown) and Susan (Jennifer Coolidge).  As Ryan, Burnham effortlessly makes it easy to take his jokes and calling Cassie a “bitch” as light-hearted humor and even a cute nickname rather than the insult it would be if said by someone else, but stepping back and looking at the premise of Promising Young Woman, you realize just how passive-aggressive he’s actually being.  Burnham’s open expressions and sincere attitude lead you to believe that that moment of hesitation when he says something off-color has to do with how you – and Cassie – interpret it, and not really what he meant.

Mulligan is fantastic and heartbreaking as Cassie. She’s a dichotomy that no one tries to figure out until the end. When Nina died Cassie’s life stopped and restarted in a different mode. Unable to cope and accept what happened, Cassie dropped out of medical school and dedicated her life to seeking justice for her friend. Mulligan portrays the duality of Cassie’s persona with a hard-edged confidence that at times teeters on the edge of vindictive, and the insecurity and fear of someone burdened by guilt for not being able to save a loved one.

As the name implies Promising Young Woman is about the promise of a future that could be amazing. A future where everything that she wants is open to her to grasp if she reaches out for it. But Fennell reveals another side to this phrase, as the side where the story speaks to a promise that can’t be kept because the opportunity to fulfill it has been taken, and violently so. Fennell shows the devastating consequences sexual violence can be not only to the person who was violated, but also their family members and friends. Cassie is unable to fully grieve and mourn the loss of someone dear to her, robbed her of the promising life she was looking forward to sharing with Nina.

While Fennell has crafted an excitingly complex narrative for her directorial debut, it’s not without its faults, namely in the way some scenes play out. There are choices that Cassie makes that while making sense for someone out for retribution, they showed a certain level of vindictiveness that made me question just how far she was willing to go. Whether or not that was the intention, it did highlight how lost Cassie was becoming. and exposing the grey area morality can become obscured by when people can do the wrong things, for the right reasons.

As with every tale, the story has to come to a conclusion where the main characters all face the result of their actions. Underscored by a haunting orchestral rendition of Britney Spear’s “Toxic”, the third act takes a dark and shocking turn could be seen as either revelatory, disturbing or even both. And there once again, are the two sides of Promising Young Woman at play, slowly and hauntingly revealing how damaging and isolating Cassie’s life is.

Rating: 7/10