Review by Mia Sherry
Bubblegum pop and neon colours are how Emerald Fennell’s debut, Promising Young Woman begins but not even the glitzy glamour of Fennell’s vision can make up for a tragically poorly-executed storyline.
A parable of the MeToo era, we’re introduced to Cassie (Carey Mulligan), alone and drunk in a lowbrow bar. Jerry (Adam Brody) sees her from across the room; so intoxicated she can barely stand. His friends make crude comments about “asking for it”, but Jerry’s a good guy, a nice guy, so he takes her home. Except, of course, he doesn’t, and instead brings her back to his place. Before things get any worse, Cassie reveals that she was sober all along.
This, we find out, is Cassie’s shtick. She goes to bars, pretends to be drunk, and then when men try to take advantage of her, like an angel of revenge, she frightens the bejesus out of them so they’ll never do it again. Or, at least, not in this parallel world, where one bad interaction would be enough to seriously stop a predator.
This is the first glaring issue with Fennell’s script: it’s not entirely based on realistic experiences of 21st century women. And though film is perhaps the best method of communicating out-of-this-world experiences, when dealing with something like rape culture and the toxicity of the patriarchy, sometimes a reality check is the best thing that’s needed. However, Fennell’s story isn’t entirely out of touch: near perfect casting of Bo Burnham as Ryan, Cassie’s love interest, sheds light on how hollow the ‘nice guy’ persona can be when the going gets tough. Further cameos from the likes of Max Greenfield, Alison Brie, and Alfred Molina make for a strong ensemble, but none of them are ever really given time to shine.
Here’s the issue: Promising Young Woman sells itself as a revenge film. Revenge films only work when the audience genuinely likes the protagonist, and is willing to overlook any moral lines or boundaries they cross or break in order to pursue justice. Except, it’s hard to have a revenge film when your main character is utterly unlikable which, unfortunately for Cassie, she is. I didn’t care enough about Cassie, or her friend Nina whom she was supposedly trying to avenge (whom we never see, bar one photo at the very beginning of the film, and hardly hear about). The lengths that Cassie goes to, then, didn’t feel inspired or fueled by a love of justice. They felt mean-spirited and deeply misogynistic, especially considering that two-thirds of the revenge is targeted at other women; both of whom had no actual hand in the act that (we’re led to believe) caused Nina’s untimely death.
This is the central issue with Promising Young Woman: it weaponizes rape culture as a fun “gotcha!” moment rather than a systemic societal ill that will take much more than one single woman to dismantle. Furthermore, in a film that is supposedly about retribution against the men who perpetrate and thrive off rape culture, it’s a surprising (if not incredibly insensitive) choice to have the only scene of gratuitous violence be against a woman, at the hands of a man.
Where the ending is framed by Fennell as being heroic, and has been praised by some as “gleeful” or “triumphant”, to my eyes it was anything but. Capitalizing on the MeToo movement and the hunger for reparations to finally be made to so many victims of systemic rape culture and sexual assault, Promising Young Woman essentially betrays that movement by its sickening ending. Sure, there are hints that the men might finally get their serving of justice but, in Fennell’s film, women have to die and become manic-pixie-dream girls from beyond the grave for this morsel of basic ethics to come to pass. Promising Young Woman is full of promise, sure, but not quite full of bite and the result is a tepid examination of the male gaze that ultimately is only able to leave a bad taste in the viewer’s mouth.