Sundance 2020: “Promising Young Woman” Finds Catharsis

Promising Young Woman Courtesy: Sundance Institute

Emerald Fennell’s feature debut may be flawed, but it’s an empathetic portrayal of rage, anguish, and black comedy.

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(This review is part of our coverage of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.)

Cassie (Carey Mulligan) and Nina were friends since their earliest years. The former’s mom (Jennifer Coolidge) looked forward to seeing her visits while her dad (Clancy Brown), rarely one to get emotional, considered her to be another daughter. They grew up together. They went to medical school together. Then something happened to Nina, and when two tried to report it to the Dean (Connie Britton), she pulled the “he said, she said” card. Now she isn’t around anymore. 

It’s been seven or eight years since then and Cassie, having dropped out of med school after the fallout, still lives with her parents, working as a barista. The assailant, Alexander (Chris Lowell), has just moved back and is about to get married. Cassie, meanwhile, has found something of a catharsis, though: whether out of grief, anger, or both, she goes cruising nightclubs every weekend. She pretends to be blackout drunk. A self-professed “nice guy” tries to take her home. Before anything can happen, she flips the switch and scares them sober.

This kind of fury has yet to be portrayed enough in movies—that is, assuming there is such thing as enough. Movies like Jennifer’s Body and Revenge have gained their much-deserved followings over the last few years, but they were untethered from reality and/or firmly genre fare. In comes Promising Young Woman, which, while too clever for its own good by the end, has that sort of catharsis. It knows the feeling of wanting others to be afraid, of welcoming scorched earth. It’s very much an imperfect movie, but it’s also one to hold on to.

Such is the premise itself: the undoing of the femme fatale that tinkers with some sort of morality without fully committing to one. Emerald Fennell’s script knows for sure what’s wrong, but that isn’t to say it verbalizes what’s right. Such may sound concerning on paper. The reason it works, though, is its bruised worldview. Very few things that Cassie does are as unequivocally good as they are necessary. Told entirely from the protagonist’s point of view in terms of ethics, the picture elicits audience satisfaction without ever feeling whole.

And therein lies the wrinkles. Promising Young Woman is not immediately gratifying. In fact, it may take some hours to wrestle one’s true reactions to it with its structure and slight disconnect. Regarding the former, Fennell employs a traditional structure with its episodic elements emphasized in pace and chapter cards. In terms of the latter, the film’s framing of trauma through someone who didn’t directly endure it can play a bit cold at first. As the story progresses, it mostly fills in its own holes in this regard.

That said, the cast does considerable work in fleshing out these perspectives, the least of not coming from Mulligan. Her caustic delivery has a tiredness to it. She isn’t just defensive; she’s also exhaused in chasing this imaginary high. It soon becomes clear that Cassie’s vigilante work isn’t out of enjoyment anywhere near it is out of anguish, and the movie never gives the sense that anything she does is to please anyone. Just as her humor is a defense, her reluctance to grow is simply a fear of things getting even worse.

It knows the feeling of wanting others to be afraid, of welcoming scorched earth. It’s very much an imperfect movie, but it’s also one to cherish.

The supporting players help give a larger grasp on the world as well, with Alison Brie as one of Cassie and Nina’s former classmates. She’s as easy to despise as Bo Burnham is to adore in his role as Ryan, a peer whom Cassie is starting to date. His subplot is easily the most forced—that is until it shows a larger purpose—and the character happens to bring most tonal inconsistencies. The largest issue, however, is the climax. It’s daring and satisfying in a way, but it also feels like an endpoint tacked onto a much smoother movie.

On the other hand, Promising Young Woman often shines creatively. The costume design from Nancy Steiner toys with femininity throughout and complements Michael Perry’s production design. It’s a sea of pleather, pink, and hard edges, and it mostly helps distract from the unfortunate truth that Benjamin Kracun’s cinematography can be pretty flat. But when the dust has settled and the credits roll, Fennell’s feature debut is a strong calling card. Better yet, it’s often crushing.

Promising Young Woman is playing in the Premieres section of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival and is to be released on December 25, 2020 by Focus Features.

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