Protecting men and boys from their own actions is an institutionalized practice. We are prone to saying, “Boys will be boys,” allowing men to act out their aggressions against those they deem weaker and chalk it up to their nature. In Promising Young Woman, director Emerald Fennell takes one woman’s encounter with the aftermath of men and their cruelty and makes them see the error of their ways.
Cassandra (Carey Mulligan) is a dry, closed-off young woman. A med school drop-out, she barely works at a coffee shop, and by night she is the source of reckoning. Adding a pound of makeup to her face and donning high heels, she sets out every night to lure men into proving they aren’t as nice as they profess to be. She doles out lessons in sexual politics because Cassandra is angry with the world and how often men get away with their actions without as much as an afterthought. She is determined to avenge a life-changing incident until she meets Ryan (Bo Burnham), an old classmate from med school. As they get to know each other, her walls come down, and she just might want to finally be rid of the anger and loss she carries in her heart, but when Ryan reveals some information about their former classmates, Cassandra sets out on a mission of revenge that may put her love life in jeopardy.
This film is full of triggers for survivors of sexual assault, but it turns the tables on rape/revenge movies. Fennell writes a darkly funny film that catches you off guard with unexpected charm and leaves you with the last laugh. Mulligan is superb as Cassandra, who has such determination to avenge someone close to her (trying to stay spoiler-free). Although you need to suspend your disbelief to an extent, the outcome is satisfying. Burnham oozes the perfect guy for a meet-cute and works his awkward charm in an uncanny way. You’ll also see the delightful Laverne Cox, the always brilliant Jennifer Coolidge and a cuddly Clancy Brown if you can believe it.
Promising Young Woman reminds me of a 2017 film called M.F.A. directed by Natalie Leite and written by Leah McKendrick, where a date rape survivor exacts revenge on men who assaulted women on her college campus, inspiring her to finish her final art pieces to get her Masters in Fine Art. M.F.A. is a bright and in-your-face dissertation on the rage a survivor feels amidst the complacency of rape culture. Both films are colourful, deceiving viewers with bright daylight, pop songs, bubble gum pinks and baby blues– perhaps emphasizing how normalized violence against women is – with a brutal punchline.
The film’s title was taken from the controversial case of Brock Turner, the Stanford student who was convicted for sexual assault but still referred to as a promising young man by the judge doling out his lenient sentence, despite the heinous crime he committed. This ingrained toxic masculinity is so insidious that a blatant crime is pardonable if you look good on paper. Victim blaming is such a consistent thing in society that it’s also an invisible but acceptable thing in our language, and this film makes us accountable. Promising Young Woman is a must-see to remind us all that there is a long road to abolish institutionalized misogyny and rape culture.