Advertised as a “dark comedy,” this movie is dark but not comic. “Promising Young Woman” is probably best described as a revenge thriller. However, the tone of the film is unsettling and inconsistent as the darkness of the on-screen activity contrasts sharply with the candy-colored settings, bright pop-up flowers, and soundtrack of pop tunes by Paris Hilton and the Spice Girls.
Engaging our attention is the film’s originality, fine acting, and contemporary commentary—all qualities that have brought recognition and honors to this unusual movie. Written and directed by Emerald Fennel, it won the Writers Guild award for best original screenplay. “Promising Young Woman” was also nominated in five Academy Award categories: Best Movie, Best Director, Producer, Original Screenplay, and Leading Actress. Fennel won an Oscar on Sunday night for Best Original Screenplay.
Lead actress Carey Mulligan breaks with her more traditional roles as she plays Cassie, a medical school dropout now working as a barista in a coffee shop. Cassie, just turning thirty, still lives at home with her parents who are sympathetic with the disquiet and unhappiness she is experiencing over the loss of her best friend Nina, a fellow med school student and a friend since childhood. Nina has died but we never hear the exact details of her demise. Implied throughout the movie is that she died as the victim of a possible rape or even gang rape, and her predators may have been fellow students.
We first see Cassie at a late-night bar sitting alone and looking totally wasted. Three young men stare at her, noting how beautiful she is and wondering which of them will offer to take her home. One of them goes to her, makes a connection, and offers to drive her home. On the way, he stops at his own apartment and invites her up. As he begins to disrobe her, she sits up and spats, “What are you doing?” At that point, he realizes that she has not been drinking and he has been duped. When Cassie returns home she takes out a small notebook and adds a hash-mark, indicating that he was just another conquest on her road to “getting even” with predatory men.
By contrast, Cassie, while working in the coffee shop, is recognized one day by a former med school colleague, Ryan (Bo Burnham), who is now a successful pediatric surgeon. He remembers her as an excellent student and never understood why she dropped out. Ryan succeeds in breaking through the armor of anger and distrust Cassie has encased herself within; and enchanted with her beauty and wry humor, he pursues a sweet and genuine romance with her. Cassie seems to reciprocate and to her parents’ delight she invites Ryan home for dinner. We hope for a happy resolution of Cassie’s quest for revenge, but it doesn’t happen.
Fennell* is not interested in writing a drama or a rom com or any film that might be predictable or might fulfill an audience’s expectations. She enjoys noting that audiences leave the theater debating the ending of the movie and her intent in making it. To an interviewer on the night of the Academy Awards, Fennel said, “I wanted to write something that didn’t feel like medicine, that would be accessible and gripping and funny, even at its darkest.”
“Promising Young woman” can be seen in some theaters and is streaming on Prime.
*Besides writing and directing, Fennel is also an actor. She played Camilla Parker-Bowles in the television series “The Crown.”