Floral print, electric rainbow wigs, neon lights and flowing pink dresses decorate the backdrop of Emerald Fennell’s Sundance project “Promising Young Woman.” At the center of this world is Cassie (Carey Mulligan), a 30-year-old living at home with her parents and who has more than a few skeletons in her closet. She keeps track, actually.
Cassie’s hobby is going to clubs, acting like she’s so plastered she can’t remember her own name, and as soon as a “nice guy” tries to take advantage of her under the guise of “helping out,” snapping back into her sober demeanor and, well, teaching him a lesson. We’re not sure exactly what happens, but when we cut to her later making another tally in her notebook, we can only assume she’s done whatever she has set out to, and it likely wasn’t pretty.
The story is scandalizing, and Cassie, often clad in pastel colors with her blonde hair in braids, is the most unexpected threat to these men. She is a modern vigilante, a woman boiling with anger and grief. We don’t immediately know what haunts her, but we know it has to do with her friend Nina, and we know it’s the reason she dropped out of medical school years ago. The audience can only assume it’s the reason she does what she does in the direct way that she does it.
Fennell has given us a protagonist we can’t help but root for, despite her flaws. Cassie is stubborn and rude, but she is traumatized. And her rage can resonate with so many women. Her master plan to dismantle an abusive patriarchal system one man at a time seems ridiculous, yet one can’t help but want to aid her endeavors. Or, at least, cheer her on every time she successfully tricks a “nice guy” into admitting he’s a fully fledged asshole. It’s a win when she gets them to confront their own malice and cruelty — men who are so clearly infuriated that they’ve been seen through and some of whom seem like they truly believe they are “nice.” It shatters their world and breaks down societal ideals of masculinity.
Mulligan delivers every line with an acidic undertone and backs down from no man. Her performance is captivating and does not let the audience forget that at the heart of it all, Cassie is a woman scorned. Her agenda is the result of pain, helplessness and sheer frustration with a system that does everything but protect her and her fellow women. And that crushing paralysis is something that every woman has felt at some point or another.
Supporting actor Bo Burnham also plays a significant role as the love interest that slowly melts her ice-cold exterior. Ryan (Burnham), a former medical school classmate, is a “nice guy” who actually is a really nice guy. He plays the character with that classic Burnham dorky awkwardness, and he clearly wants to take the time to get to know Cassie. He is honest and persistent without being pushy. But Cassie takes her time letting her walls down.
It’s a bit of a slow burn, but would you expect anything less from a woman who spends her nights targeting so-called “nice guys?” She’s seen the worst of them, and she knows the act only goes on for so long.
Fennell’s directorial debut solidifies her as a promising young woman herself. Previously the showrunner for “Killing Eve,” this is her first writer-director credit. Fennell has had various acting roles (you might recognize her as Camilla Shand on “The Crown” or Elsa in “The Danish Girl”), but “Promising Young Woman” is very much the project that is going to put her name on the map.
The film is an ambitious undertaking, and she occasionally struggles with tonal consistency: Sometimes you’re not sure whether you’re watching a romantic comedy or a violent revenge story. But nevertheless, the audience grows used to it and doesn’t feel like they’re settling or being forced to. It’s just the nature of this world, which ultimately is just the reality of womanhood. A sugary romance with a kind and loving boyfriend does not negate the constant fear of the malevolence of men and the cruelty of the patriarchy. Cassie is not a tough girl like we’re used to. She does not carry a gun and strut around in leather and chunky boots. She does not shy away from her femininity.
The bubblegum aesthetic of the film is vital and has a clear message: Anger is not only reserved for the least feminine woman. Cassie is every girl and any girl. She is a badass who makes it her personal mission to discipline potential rapists, and she is the romantic that dances around a pharmacy to a Paris Hilton song.
“Promising Young Woman” is all about reclaiming. We should not have to strip ourselves of our femininity to be taken seriously. It implies that oppression and abuse are simply ingrained into gender, as if it is to be expected. Women should have our cake and feel safe eating it too. We should be allowed to be women on our own terms. And if those terms include a vendetta against disgusting predators, then so be it. I’m team Cassie.