Promising Young Woman: A Must Watch

Revenge thriller, dark comedy, rom-com, and a deeply disturbing call-out of the narrative surrounding sexual assault, Promising Young Woman, a feature film by writer and director Emeral Fennell, does it all. The title alludes to the label given to many accused rapists by the media as a “promising young man” and to the tendency of the media to mourn the future of the accused instead of focusing on the devastation of the victim. The focus on the narrative and discussion surrounding sexual assaults, especially at academic institutions, is key to Fennel’s message. This is not a movie of satisfying vengeance for victims, but a rallying call to the audience to rethink how they view sexual assault. 

Promising Young Woman follows the story of Cassie Thomas, played by Carey Mulligan, a 30 year old med school dropout seemingly floundering in life after the assault of her best friend Nina. A barista by day, by night Cassie pretends to be inebriated at local bars and waits for “good guys” to bring her home and attempt to have sex with her. Obsessed with getting revenge for Nina, Cassie begins to execute a detailed plan of vengeance against all those who aided in the death of her friend. Seemingly a revenge thriller, Promising Young Woman is much more as it explores all those who share guilt in ruining a woman’s life after she has been assaulted, and questions what it means to get revenge or closure.

From the pink hues and lights, to the classical rendition of “Toxic” by Britney Spears, this movie is unapologetically female. So why is a movie about rape culture seemingly targeted towards women? I believe it is because Promising Young Woman is just as much an indictment of the bystanders as it is the perpetrators. In one scene, Cassie meets with a former classmate Madison McPhee (Alison Brie) for lunch. As the conversation shifts to Nina, a now inebriated Madison explains how it was hard to believe a woman who was notorious for sleeping around. In another scene, Cassie confronts the dean at her former med school for not punishing Al Monroe (Chris Lowell), Nina’s rapist. Dean Walker (Connie Britton) justified her actions by wondering how she was supposed to ruin a promising young man’s life with such little evidence. This is a painfully ironic comment since she is speaking to Cassie, whose life was in fact ruined as collateral damage, while Monroe is now a guest speaker at the med school. Cassie herself is not guiltless, as she allows a drunk Madison to go up to a hotel room with a man and think she was raped. Despite being an apparent man-hating movie, Fennel does not let women off the hook. Everyone is a participant in rape culture, and everyone has a role in changing the narrative. 

Now, this is not to say that men were spared in any way from Fennel’s deeply cutting call out. The cast is filled with actors known as Hollywood “good guys,” including Adam Brody who played Seth in The O.C. and Max Greenfield from New Girl, but Fennel quickly destroys any notion of a “good guy.” From the conscious casting of nice guys as sexual assaulters, to the assaulters’ pleas to Cassie that they are “good guys, Fennel asserts that there really are no good guys.

One man does challenge this assertion. Dr. Ryan Cooper, played by Bo Burnham, is a former classmate of Cassie and a pediatric surgeon and is the classic rom-com love interest. In fact, it is his relationship with Cassie which almost leads to her turning around her life, and moving past Nina’s history. His character serves as the only remaining “good guy”, a guy the audience can root for. Despite this, his friendship with Al Monroe and his presence during Cassie’s time at college brings into question whether there really are any good guys. 

Promising Young Woman is a deeply dark, insidiously funny, and all around important movie that everyone should watch with an open mind. Fennel masterfully plays with viewers’ assumptions and poses more questions than answers. Overall, it is a must-watch and even more importantly a must-discuss move.

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