By Kristyn Landry
Emerald Fennell’s colourful film, Promising Young Woman, is not your typical feminist thriller.
CW: "Promising Young Woman" contains harsh depictions of sexual assault, some of which are discussed in this review.
Carey Mulligan’s character, Cassandra Thomas, is nearly unconscious as Neil, played by Christopher Mintz-Plasse, slides his hand between her legs and tells her, “You don’t wanna go home.”
The film is Promising Young Woman, directed by Emerald Fennell. This is one of many scenes throughout the movie that brings discomfort and fury, but despite Cassie’s seemingly dazed state, she’s most definitely in control. Every week, Cassie goes out to a club pretending to be “too drunk to stand,” and waits for the inevitable “nice guys” to come and see if she’s okay, bring her home, and attempt to further intoxicate and sleep with her. It’s then that she ennacts her revenge, with a level-headed stare and their realization that she knew what they were doing all along.
It had always been the dream of Cassie and her best friend, Nina, to become doctors. Yet now in her thirties and working at “a shitty coffee shop,” Cassie seeks revenge, not only on the many “nice guys” of the world, but also on those involved in an incident that occured in medical school, one that has haunted her days since.
Following my first watch, I demanded that every single person I knew join me in my pain. It is not the only feminist-driven film to tackle issues of sexual assault, but it sets itself apart in its appealing aesthetic and stomach-twisting circumstances — horror wrapped in Cassie’s pastel dresses and colourful nail polish. Released at the end of 2020, it did not quite receive the traction it deserved. However, this film is truly special as it showed what can be done when corners aren’t cut and rape culture is recognized for what it is.
Sometimes you watch a romance film and know that the guy who serendipitously bumps into the main character will fall in love with her. Other times you watch an action movie and know that it will end with the bad guy in handcuffs. This doesn’t happen in Promising Young Woman. Rather, Fennell continuously subverts the expectations of the audience by blinding us to the darker pretenses just before we are upon them — showing us what we want to see before revealing the truth to us.
For a thriller, doom and gloom is far from the aesthetic. Instead, Cassie favours a very soft, bright wardrobe: pinks, reds, light blues, floral dresses, braids and bows. The setting itself is very sugar-coated as well, whether it’s the overtly pink of her parents’ home or a decoratively dreamy coffee shop.
Everything about this film reflects your favourite rom-com — except when it doesn’t. The soundtrack consists of the DROELOE remix of Boys by Charlie XCX, a violin rendition of Britney Spears’ Toxic by Anthony Willis, the ever-powerful ballad, Angel of the Morning by Juice Newton, and probably the most 2000s pop song ever, Stars Are Blind by Paris Hilton. What this in turn does is manipulate our feelings and expectations as we’re watching the film. When we’re listening to “Boys,” with its upbeat tone and lyrics, we’re thrown off by the grinding hips of businessmen in the club, and not the ever-common montage of dancing young women. The Stars Are Blind scene takes an especially sharp turn into romance city, with Cassie and Ryan, played by Bo Burnham, dancing and singing in the middle of a pharmacy. Scenes like this are pleasant, fun and only bring us more shock when we’re ripped away and thrown back into the thriller Fennell had promised.
The chosen casting is no exception to this theme. The film includes many well-known comedy stars: Adam Brody, Sam Richardson, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Max Greenfield and other actors whose familiarity will initially fill audiences with a sense of comfort when seeing them on screen, whether your go-to watch is Superbad or New Girl. Our expectations, once again, unexpectedly work against us, as Fennell brings to screen the real world “nice guys,” only making the true nature of their character all the more appalling. This shows the audience not to trust in their expectations and that even in pleasing environments, with humorous interactions and a pastelled wardrobe, the danger is only charaded — not absent altogether.
Promising Young Woman was not some big campaign for Fennell to exclusively hate on men and their part in violence against women. While much of Cassie’s revenge does centre on male perpetrators, the women in her life are also not safe from the retribution she seeks.
“When you get that drunk, things happen. Don’t get blackout drunk all the time, and then expect people to be on your side when you have sex with someone you don’t want to,” says Madison, played by Alison Brie, while she and Cassie are out for lunch. Though this invitation from Cassie seemed like a light-hearted opportunity to catch up, it is quickly used to put Madison in the hot seat and confront her for not believing a classmate who came to her after being raped. Brie’s performance is chilling, perfectly capturing a superficial friend who may not have committed the assault herself, but was a bystander all the same.
Cassie also takes the time to confront Dean Walker, the dean of her old college, a woman who didn’t work hard enough to convict a rapist after the victim went to her for help. Here’s an excerpt of their conversation:
Dean Walker: “It’s so hard, but you know also if she was drinking, and maybe couldn’t remember everything…”
Cassie: “So she shouldn’t have been drunk?”
Dean Walker: “I’m not saying that, I —”
Cassie: “Sorry, I don’t mean to sound critical, Dean Walker, I just want to be clear.”
Dean Walker: “None of us want to admit when we’ve made ourselves vulnerable, when we’ve made a bad choice. And those choices, those mistakes can be so damaging. And really regrettable.”
Dean Walker: “Yes, I mean because what would you have me do? Ruin a young man’s life every time we get an accusation like this?”
Addressing female bystanders’ role in rape culture seems criminally unique. Not only does Promising Young Woman recognize bystanders and other involved individuals apart from the rapist, but it also points a finger to the women who look the other way, surely giving the “women do no wrong” believers a rude awakening.
Promising Young Woman is colourful, quirky, sweet — yet also heartbreaking, uncomfortable and rage-inducing at times. Escapist Movies, a YouTube channel dedicated to film reviews and analysis, describes it well: “Promising Young Woman is not a rape-revenge story…Promising Young Woman is a tragedy.” It is not the empowering tale of a woman seeking revenge on those who deserve it (though seeing her get retribution is very satisfying), but one of a woman facing grief, trauma and seemingly punishing herself for being unable to prevent it all. It is full of so much more than I can discuss in this non-spoiler reflection, and so incredibly worth the watch.
Fennell never once promises a happy ending. She jerks her audience back and forth between laughter and heartache, enjoyment and disgust, like a dog with a new chew toy. She holds a pastel-tinted lens to today’s rape culture and still exploits it for what it harbours: the too-often ignored violence against women, the too-often disregarded claims and the too-often promising young men that are let off just for that fact.