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.