'Promising Young Woman' Upends Expectations In Dark, Demented, and Delirious Ways

As funny as it is tragic, as powerful as it is necessary.

Promising Young Woman

Categorizing a film as belonging to the “rape/revenge sub-genre” typically implies the movie will feature certain imagery, an oppressive tone, and some mandatory plot turns. The trailer and official synopsis for the new film Promising Young Woman suggests the same, albeit with an eye and ear for style, but much like the young woman of the title the movie couldn’t care less about your expectations. The result is a rare film that delivers a searing commentary even as it manages both massive entertainment and edge of your seat suspense. It’s a thrilling, cathartic, and wickedly hilarious kick to the balls of male privilege, and it’s the first must-see movie of the year.

Cassie (Carey Mulligan) works in a coffee shop, lives at home, and doesn’t talk all that much about why she dropped out of medical school several years prior. She’s light on friends and even lighter on hobbies, but there is one thing that brings her joy. When night falls, she can often be found stumbling drunk, nearly passed out, in bars around town, and when a self-proclaimed “nice guy” offers to take care of her she goes along for the ride — only to reveal her true motivations on those who subsequently try to take advantage of a woman incapable of offering consent. Things grow more complicated, though, when she reconnects with an old school friend named Ryan (Bo Burnham) and discovers another man from her past has returned to town at the top of his game.

It’s early, but Promising Young Woman might just be the best romantic comedy of the year. Honest. That said, the darker, sadder, more devastating elements — of which there are several — are equally brilliant and executed with awe and style to spare. It’s an intoxicating blend that never falters in tone as writer/director Emerald Fennell crafts an exquisitely controlled take-down of entitlement and assumption. The film delivers big laughs, grim truths, and tragedy with such confidence and gusto the concoction can’t help but feel odd despite succeeding all the way through its unexpectedly satisfying conclusion.

Mulligan’s character is the heart and soul of the film, and she captivates throughout with a performance that delights, terrifies, and absolutely crushes emotionally. Cassie is a damaged woman, and not necessarily in the way viewers are expecting, and it’s manifested within her in dark directions. Her parents, played to perfection by Jennifer Coolidge and Clancy Brown, are trapped in their own heartache for their daughter, and their confused sorrow at what she’s become is devastating in its own small way. As grim as Cassie’s outlook has grown, she maintains a witty, occasionally sarcastic outlook when interacting with others — she hasn’t given up on life, she’s just given up on expecting good things from it. We can’t help but love her and care for her, but even there the film twists in a knife by testing the boundaries of our affection. How cruel do we allow our anti-heroes to get before they cross over into being villains themselves?

Ryan’s arrival throws a wrench into her disposition and plans, and that’s where the film becomes such a deliriously funny rom-com. No joke, their scenes could be lifted and dropped into a more purely conventional studio comedy almost guaranteed to be a hit. The two show a delicious chemistry with banter and exchanges that feel fresh, playfully mean, and far from the norm. The genius of it being in this particular film instead is that it succeeds in finding something sweet, warm, and extremely funny in an otherwise dark world. As bad as things get, there’s still love to be had. Of course, that works both ways.

Fennell casts her film smartly with an eye for both talent and purpose. The men who cross Cassie’s path are played by the likes of Adam Brody, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Sam Richardson (the single nice guy on Veep!), and other recognizable faces known for fun, innocence, and laughs. The film targets viewer expectations this way (among others) by leaving us off guard at their appearance and casual charisma, and part and parcel with that is the idea that these “nice” guys don’t see themselves as villains. They don’t see the line they’re possibly crossing, and as Cassie reminds them the film reminds us — bad people don’t always look like monsters.

The system, both social and judicial, is equally targeted here meaning that the offenders aren’t alone in Cassie’s (and the film’s) cross-hairs. Alison Brie and Connie Britton play women who land on her list as well helping mark a distinction between a critique of male entitlement and basic male bashing. We as people have a lot of work to do, and those who make that effort find different ends from those who don’t. The film earns tears on that point and others while adding a recurrent theme of forgiveness into its already myriad web of ideas, thrills, laughs, and condemnations.

You’ll notice this review is light on plot details and that’s with good reason. While most movies, even great ones, follow a general template of events, Fennell’s feature debut marches to its own drum. This isn’t unexpected from the Killing Eve producer/writer, and it means the film manages more than a few surprises — not twists, and yes there is a difference — on its way to an inevitable conclusion. By the time the credits roll, Promising Young Woman confirms itself as immensely entertaining and far, far too relevant.

Follow all of our coverage from Sundance Film Festival 2020.

"Rob is great. He likes movies. He writes about them. And he's a good person."