It was only natural that a wave of female-driven independent films with themes surrounding cultural misogyny and female empowerment followed the wake ofwould be created as a side effect of the #MeToo movement. Films like “The Assistant,” “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” and “The Forty-Year-Old Version” are all great examples of films discussing how society views women, released just from 2020 alone. But it’s “Promising Young Woman,” the debut feature of writer/director Emerald Fennell (who has previously written episodes of “Killing Eve” and stars as Camilla Parker-Bowles on “The Crown”) that stands out as having forged a new path ahead for modern cinema. Gone are the days of the bootstrapping single mother à la “Erin Brockovich” and the plucky go-getter of “Legally Blonde;” Fennell has ushered in a new breed of feminist film—one with a vigilante protagonist, shrewd applications of righteous anger and a world of predators and bystanders brought to life with more than enough classical inspirations and ambitious plot twists to allow it to maintain attention among film circles for decades to come.
“Promising Young Woman” follows Cassie Thomas (Carey Mulligan), an aimless barista still dwelling in her parents’ house who lives a double life pretending to be drunk, letting men lead her from the clubs to their apartments, and then revealing her sobriety to scare them out of their behaviors. She maintains this lifestyle until a fateful encounter with an old college friend (Bo Burnham) calls her to action andas she plots sociopathic acts to avenge her deceased best friend.
The main innovation of “Promising Young Woman” lies in the ebbs and flows between “internal” and “external”conflict that define the film’s direction. Emerald Fennell weaves between Cassie’s inner narration and the perception of those surrounding her—whether viewing her as a woman (i.e. through the male gaze) or as a psychopath. In the very first scene, in a nightclub, we see Cassie through the eyes of men. The film is more than happy to at first observes Cassie from a distance and slowly but surely buildsbuild toward a closer attachment to her. Not only is it a smart writing tactic—to color the protagonist in compelling shades of mystery—but it prods the viewers to mentally explore the motivations behind Cassie’s actions.
The film is also differentiated by its artful approach, one that calls to mind both the cinematic cool of the French new wave and the maximalist pop culture coating of Lady Gaga music videos. The opening credits sequence watches Cassie as she walks down a sidewalk—camera shaking, burger in her hand, ketchup dripping down the sleeve of her button-up business shirt—and in that moment, Fennell saves dialogue for a later moment and allows the image to do the talking. AfterThen, when more plot beats kick in and Cassie engages in her vengeful acts, pink roman letters appear in the middle of the screen, suggesting that each act is part of an elaborate plan or order. These are deliberate choices on Fennell’s part that erase the seamlessness of past feminist films such as “Hidden Figures” and “On the Basis of Sex,” instead calling attention to the film’s machinations and, consequently, to the way they serve Cassie’s story.
I must say I’ve been intentionally vague about the nature of Cassie’s vengeful acts because I want viewers to have the chance to go into the film blind, as I did, with as little context about the story as possible. The way the story plays out not only makes the film’s universe feel like a living, breathing world, but also gives each of the characters a complex, fully-realized stance regarding its central topic, that being society’s willingness to brush violence against women under the rug. Experiencing the film for oneself (along with Carey Mulligan’s captivating performance, for which she deserves to win the Golden Globe) is integral to engaging with the film’s central discourse, and I would be remiss to prevent any potential viewers from doing so.
Nevertheless, perhaps out of all of 2020’s films, “Promising Young Woman” is the one that seems most poised to inspire generations of filmmakers beyond the current moment. Fennell’s cinematic statement exists not only as a love letter to cinema but also as an overdue response to the regrettably plentiful #MeToo controversies plaguing schools, workplaces, Hollywood and society as a whole. Do not miss this one.
This film is streaming on multiple platforms including Amazon Prime.