When the trailer dropped for Emerald Fennell’s feature film debut, audiences were enraptured at the promise of a candy-coated #MeToo tale of sweet, sweet vengeance. On delivery, Promising Young Woman is a wild ride, bedecked in vibrant colours and boasting an exciting soundtrack. So why does it leave a bitter taste?
Starring the wonderful Carey Mulligan as a convincingly disillusioned woman on a one-track mission for that dish best served cold, Cassandra Thomas sets out to avenge the traumatic sexual assault of her childhood friend Nina that led to both women dropping out of medical school. Cassie’s life has ground to a halt since the incident, and she lives at home while working an uninspiring career in a coffee shop. But she is an intelligent woman with a dark streak a mile wide, and a dangerous hobby to match. At night she goes out to bars, staggering around like she’s black-out drunk, and waits for some ‘nice guy’ to come over and see if she’s okay. After they inevitably ‘help’ her towards some form of bed, sofa, or futon, she pops up sober as a judge to waggle a finger at them and teach them a lesson about taking advantage. When Cassie falls in love right at the moment she finally catches Nina’s abuser in her crosshairs, the stakes are raised, and she has to make a choice. Featuring the genius casting of Bo Burnham as the ‘nice-guy’ love interest, and fantastic supporting performances from a star studded cast including Alison Brie, Laverne Cox, and Jennifer Coolidge, the film should have been the fun and cathartic ride it said on the tin. But despite its bright cinematography and A-star performances, Promising Young Woman leaves us feeling like we got a raw deal.
The tradition of the ‘rape-revenge’ movie has a long and controversial history. These films offer us the chance to see the woman be her own butt-kicking avenger. Great, right? Not necessarily. Despite what movies like American Mary and Revenge try to tell you, these stories are often far from empowering. In the worst case scenarios the assaults are played for thrills, and far too often the avenging woman is punished for her violence. In every instance the legal and judicial systems have failed to protect these victims in the first place. And Promising Young Woman, for all its feminist swaggering, doesn’t give us the satisfaction we need from the plot. Watching Christopher Mintz-Plasse play a fantastically annoying nice-guy novelist forcing himself on a wasted Cassie, we’re practically baying for blood—but the men in this film escape disappointingly unscathed.
Cassandra is supposed to be our hero—but this film feels less than feminist, and often less than realistic too. Cassandra’s mission might be worthy, but every woman knows that if you go home with a man, pretending to be drunk, and then at the moment he tries to assault you yell “surprise, I’m sober!” he isn’t going to stammeringly apologise and put you in a cab. The consequences could be a lot more serious. Ultimately, the tone of the film oscillates wildly between being a fun revenge flick and a candid, realistic look at structural sexism. In the process, somehow, the men still end up on top, while every woman right down to innocent bystanding teenage girls get punished. Realistic? Maybe. But is it what we needed? Not even close.
The fact that the police are trusted in this film to deal out justice for victims of sexual abuse is unconvincing, and especially discouraging in light of recent events, which have proved that not only do the police fail to protect women from assault, they often perpetrate it too.
Promising Young Woman features stellar acting and several moments of striking cinematography. But audiences expected a triumphant roar against sexism and rape culture, and in the end, this film felt more like a whimper. Fennell’s film made a promise that it couldn’t keep.
Words by Eli Dolliver
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