Bo Burnham

Promising Young Woman

20/04/21

Now TV

Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman is a remarkable debut, at once fresh, funny, terrifying and compelling. Starring Carey Mulligan, it tells the tale of Cassie, a med-school dropout with a mission. Cassie is thirty, but she still lives at home with her parents; she works part-time in a coffee shop and has no friends at all. Something calamitous happened back in her uni days, and Cassie wants revenge…

Except she doesn’t; not really. I keep reading that PYW is a ‘rape revenge movie,’ but Cassie doesn’t seem to want revenge at all. Instead, she confronts people with a metaphorical mirror, so that they can’t help but see how shitty their behaviour is. The ‘nice guys’ who approach her with dispiriting predictability when she pretends to be drunk and alone in nightclubs, offering to ‘help’ by getting her home; the girls who slut-shame their peers; the figures of authority who brush sexual attacks under the carpet – Cassie just wants them to acknowledge that they’re wrong. She wants to effect change.

This is a zippy, witty piece of writing, that often feels surprising, and Mulligan is on fine form here. She’s perfect for the role: one minute she’s all sweet vulnerability, the next a steely avenging angel. Writer/director Fennell makes important points about the way our whole society protects and enables those who perpetrate assault whilst punishing their victims, but the film never feels preachy or didactic; she has an admirable lightness of touch. The bubblegum shades and kitsch soundtrack give us hints of rom-com (the scene in the pharmacy, where Cassie and her new boyfriend, Ryan (Bo Burnham), dance to Paris Hilton’s Stars are Blind is a particular delight), but Fennell repeatedly pulls the rug out from under our feet and takes us to some unexpected places. The bold references to Charles Laughton’s classic Night of the Hunter, for example, work well to underscore the bleak reality the story unveils.

The violence, when it comes, is shocking in its understatement. There is no blood and gore here, but neither is there any let up – I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to say that what we witness is a deliberate, protracted act. It works though, and I applaud Fennell for eschewing the salacious prurience that often dominates such scenes (Paul Verhoeven’s Elle being a case in point, a movie spoiled for me by its focus on the very acts it claimed to rail against).

It’s easy to see why Promising Young Woman has made such a splash, and appears to be a real Oscar contender. If Fennell wins, it will be well-deserved.

4.7 stars

Susan Singfield

Film Bouquets 2019

Bouquets&Brickbats

Bouquets&Brickbats

Bouquets&Brickbats

It’s that time again when we award (virtual) bouquets to our favourite films of the year. As ever, the final choice may not always reflect the films that scored the highest at time of viewing, but rather those that have stayed with us most indelibly.

The Favourite (director – Yorgos Lanthimos; writers – Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara)

Capernaum (director – Nadine Labaki; writers – Nadine Labaki, Jihad Hojeily and Michelle Keserwany)

Eighth Grade (writer/director – Bo Burnham)

Booksmart (director – Olivia Wilde; writers – Emily Halperm, Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel and Katie Silberman)

Beats (director – Brian Welsh; writer – Kieran Hurley)

Rocketman (director – Dexter Fletcher; writer – Lee Hall)

Animals (director – Sophie Hyde; writer – Emma Jane Unsworth)

Hustlers (director – Lorene Scafaria; writers – Lorene Scafaria and Jessica Pressler)

Joker (director – Todd Phillips; writers – Todd Phillips and Scott Silver)

Monos (director – Alejandro Landes; writers – Alejandro Landes and Alexis Dos Santos)

Honey Boy (director – Alma Har’el; writer – Shia LaBeouf)

Little Women (director – Greta Gerwig; writers – Greta Gerwig and Louisa May Alcott)

 

Philip Caveney & Susan Singfield

 

 

 

 

Eighth Grade

28/04/19

I love a good coming-of-age story, and Bo Burnham’s directorial debut is a fine example of the genre. It’s charming and excruciating in equal measure, specific to contemporary America yet universal in its appeal. We haven’t all grown up with social media, but we have all endured those painful teenage years, negotiating the complexities of school and home, trying to find where we fit in.

Kayla (Elsie Fisher) is about to graduate from middle school; she’s lonely and self-conscious, desperate to dispel the myth that she is ‘quiet.’ She vlogs a more outgoing version of herself, but no one seems to be watching; she’s a voyeur, viewing the world through the prism of social media, willing herself to live up to the persona she projects online. Her to-do list is dreadfully sad: get a best friend, be there for them no matter what. She doesn’t want much, but even these small dreams seem beyond her reach.

What’s clever here is the sheer ordinariness of it all. Kayla isn’t odd or unusual; she’s a dorky, awkward everykid. Her dad, Mark (Josh Hamiltion) is a loving parent (her mum is absent; she ‘left’ when Kayla was little, but we don’t find out why, and it doesn’t seem to be a real issue). She isn’t bullied at school; she’s just ignored. Even the stuff that seems scary from the outside – a school shooting drill; an older boy making a pass – doesn’t materialise into anything bigger than Kayla can cope with. This is not a sensationalist film.

Elsie Fisher is delightful in the lead role, as natural and appealing as it’s possible to be. Her vulnerabilities are writ large, but so is her underlying optimism, and the kindness that defines the character. Hamilton is also terrific as Kayla’s devoted dad, patiently struggling to communicate with a daughter who is monosyllabic in his presence, and who reacts angrily to his well-meaning attempts to offer reassurance and love. Theirs is a convincing relationship, a beacon of hope.

As you might expect, there is a lot of humour here too: Burnham is a comedian, after all. But it’s a gentle sort of comedy, delivered with affection; this is, ultimately, life-affirming stuff.

A heart-warming little movie – and one that might just make you want to cut those moody teenagers some slack…

4.8 stars

Susan Singfield