Saturday, February 20, 2021

Promising Young Woman: Movie Review

Entertaining with a dark truth and tragic emotional edge.
Promising Young Woman is a polished, original, wild ride of revenge, but at its heart, it’s an impassioned story of a young woman with a fractured psyche and an astute examination of society that needs a harsh reckoning to come to terms with its treatment of sexual abuse. This is writer-director Emerald Fennell’s directorial debut and is best summed-up with one-word: Wow.   2020

Directed by: Emerald Fennell

Screenplay by: Emerald Fennell

Starring: Carey Mulligan, Bo Burnham

Meet Cassie (Carey Mulligan), but be careful, because she’s really not up for meeting new people. She’s felt invisible most her life, always tossed aside for not being pretty enough or not being cool enough and then she met Nina, her first true friend, a woman who was pretty enough and cool enough and didn’t care what other people thought, and she liked Cassie for who she was. But now years later, Cassie has not gotten over the loss of her best friend and the trauma that came with it.

Carey Mulligan stars as Cassie in director Emerald Fennell's PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN,
a Focus Features release. Courtesy of Focus Features.

While the film does take place chronologically, the reveal of who Cassie is and why she is the way she is, is not linear. We are all a sum of our experiences and circumstances, and as is highlighted in Cassie’s life she’s struggling to understand why others are continuing with their lives but Nina can’t. Cassie ends up living two distinct lives and much of the tension and emotion of this movie is the crashing and colliding of her two very different temperaments.

Cassie, at thirty years of age, is still living with her parents, working a minimum wage job at a coffee shop after dropping out of med school, has no friends, and is perfectly content with her apparently stalled life, even though it causes her parents much distress. Meanwhile, at night, Cassie takes on a new persona. Although the audience never sees Nina, this new persona is more vibrant, a life of the party type, eerily similar to how Nina is described, and at considerable odds with how we see Cassie during the day. In short, Cassie dresses up, plays drunk, and allows men to try and take advantage of her until she turns the tables on them. She doesn’t care that they call her a psychopath, she’s doing what society won’t do.

One day, at the coffee shop, an old friend turns up – Ryan (Bo Burnham). A guy who remembers Cassie from med school, and barely remembers Nina, but was part of that friend group. He’s instantly smitten with Cassie, who then lets her guard down. It would be tempting for the audience to let their guard down too; Ryan is handsome, very funny, sweet and thoughtful, and tries to be understanding even though he really doesn’t know why Cassie shies away from intimacy.

Carey Mulligan stars as Cassie and Bo Burnham stars as Ryan in director Emerald Fennell's
PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN, a Focus Features release. Courtesy of Focus Features.

I have read a theory that discussed most of the young actors in the movie were cast on purpose: for instance, Adam Brody, Max Greenfield, and Chris Lowell. All very popular with the thirty-something female audience and well-known for their wholesome TV characters – nice, good guys who couldn’t hurt a fly. The audience is meant to be disarmed by them. However, the casting choice I’m most curious about is Bo Burnham, the second most important character.

Burnham is best known as a writer and stand-up comedian, not really an actor. In the past six years, he has had two small movie roles and a handful of bit parts in TV episodes. He’s barely known as an actor. Perhaps, that’s it, many viewers will have zero pre-conceived notions of him, but the rest of us know him as a comedian (writer and performer), a very funny, very charming guy who can pierce through to the emotional truth of any comedic bit in a flash. The reveal to his character shook me to the core. A person who represents much of society – how “nice” things can look are then reasoned away with half-truths and moral lies.

In addition to her nightly plans, Cassie also has a few specific revenge scenarios to play out. Most of which only come into play because of the arrival of Ryan in her life, who the other side of Cassie is falling in love with.

The writing of this movie is impeccable – all of the key drivers like Cassie’s nighttime revenge, Cassie’s daytime life, the way Cassie has compartmentalized her life and how Ryan fits into all of this, are perfectly intertwined together. Each aspect of her life has connection to a later reveal in the movie, and by the end we have a fully realized portrait of a young woman who society expects to just get past her trauma, and she can’t accept that everybody else who had a part in that trauma can just get away with it. I am in awe of the emotional insight into this character.

The film also tells this story with more than just character work and a well written screenplay. The cinematography, use of colours and costume design cannot be over-looked. Nighttime Cassie is dark and vibrant – flashing neon lights in night clubs, music that hooks you in, and Cassie wearing dresses that could kill. During the day, Cassie is repressed, her scenes at home are dull, wearing drab full-length dresses. The coffee shop is more brightly lit – representing the innocent Cassie, yearning to go back to a time before lives irreversibly changed. She wears mostly white or pink, sometimes hair in pigtails or scrunchies, and things get mixed up when Ryan enters the picture. The movie predominantly takes place in a suburban neighbourhood not far from downtown, with nice, bright, perfectly framed houses on nice, quiet streets – covering up the secrets the people live with inside.

Promising Young Woman is the complete package. An entertaining movie with a dark truth and a tragic emotional edge. I was a ball of tension and nervous laughter for the entirety of the run-time, expertly walks the line between plot and character. It’s a remarkably polished movie and the most impressive directorial debut I can remember.