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Film Review: Equally Funny and Devastating, “Promising Young Woman” Is One of the Most Exciting Movies of This Era

Written by: Hannah Tran | December 18th, 2020

Film poster: “Promising Young Woman”

Promising Young Woman (Emerald Fennell, 2020) 4 out of 4 stars.

To the mere outsider, it would seem that the titular character of Promising Young Woman has squandered those initial two descriptors. Not only did Cassie drop out of med school, but she is now turning 30 and still living with her parents while holding down a job as a barista. But while most around her can’t grasp how a woman once so bright could fall through the cracks of society, her reasons are very clear. Grieving the sexual assault and subsequent loss of her friend years earlier, she now has a personal mission of revenge.

After an unexpected encounter with an old acquaintance, however, her plan is threatened in what is one of the most fearlessly divisive and endlessly intelligent films of the year. With its fresh look and feel, perfectly supplemented with a striking all-female soundtrack, Promising Young Woman is an exhilarating debut for writer-director Emerald Fennell as well as a perfect showcase of the talent of its actors. And although it may be initially less brutal than it lets on, the movieis a wild, relentless tale of wish-fulfillment and revenge that is seen through to its very end.

Carey Mulligan in PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN ©Focus Features

Much like its central figure, Promising Young Women is full of secrets. The way that Fennell both withholds and reveals information is not only a testament to the brilliance of the writing but also of the story. It is a disorienting series of surprises that are powerful enough to be truly heartbreaking, thrilling and empowering. With each turn the narrative takes, Fennell expertly cultivates an edgy, punk atmosphere that is completely unafraid to be politically challenging and strange while still transcending itself with its universal emotion. It is at once timeless in its exploration of trauma and also one of the most deeply urgent movies of the year in its reaction to that trauma.

There is a certain honesty about the characters that feels unusual with its mature ability to recognize their flaws and their desperate need for catharsis. This is bolstered by the perfectly cast lead performances of Carey Mulligan (Mudbound), who is undeniably in top form, and comedian Bo Burnham. The chemistry between these two is the basis of much of the film’s dramatic power. Together, they are so delightfully sweet and laugh-out-loud funny that it is impossible not to be utterly moved and devastated by their fate. 

l-r: Carey Mulligan and Bo Burnham in PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN ©Focus Features

Cassie, in particular, feels like a character that could only exist in this moment and also one that needs to exist for this moment. While her story fits into the countless others of this kind from the last few years, the film’s transgressive attitude and its sincere love for her leads to a complete encapsulation of that specific type of dread she feels and an empowering example of solidarity, unfortunately to her own detriment. Fennell never feels the need to explicitly state Cassie’s feelings or thoughts, trusting the audience to fully empathize with her, slip into her mind, and experience her emotions for themselves. And this is where Promising Young Woman is at its strongest. It is both for those who have felt Cassie’s plight and those who have not in its effortless ability to traverse her feelings of anger, pain, loss, and love and force its audience to feel each of these with her.

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Hannah Tran is a film critic and filmmaker from Las Vegas, Nevada. Hannah works as a film screener for the Las Vegas Film Festival and publishes an independent zine focused on highlighing Asian American filmmaking.

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