Message movies can come in all forms, from serious Oscar-bait dramas to hilarious satires. But there’s rarely, if ever, been a message movie like Promising Young Woman, which tackles an issue that’s a scourge on society in one of the most provocative ways you can imagine.
Cassandra (Carey Mulligan) is an emotionally stilted woman, as evidenced by the fact that she’s still living at home at age 30 and working at a coffee shop despite having gone to medical school. Oh, and there’s also the fact that she repeatedly goes to bars and pretends to be blackout drunk so that she can prey on guys who have no qualms taking advantage of a woman in such a situation.
Her life choices stem from a scarring incident in college, one that’s brought back into sharp relief when Ryan (Bo Burnham), a former classmate, comes back into her life. Even as the two grow closer, Cassandra delves deeper into her obsession, trying to exact revenge on everyone involved in the terrible event.
Written and directed by Emerald Fennell, the film upends expectations at nearly every turn. Other filmmakers might have gone the purely visceral route, playing out a vengeance story in the most obvious way possible. Fennell, however, turns the film into something much deeper while still offering a highly entertaining framework on which to lay that complexity.
The film sets the tone right away with a bouncy pop song to which a number of anonymous men are seen dancing very badly, followed by a conversation focusing on the worst male thoughts when talking about women. That exchange includes two stereotypically nice actors, Sam Richardson and Adam Brody, a trend that continues throughout the film to prove the point that it’s not always the obvious bad guy who can be the asshole.
Fennell makes things even more interesting when she goes all-in on the budding relationship of Cassandra and Ryan. She treats many of their scenes together as a romantic comedy, with the two of them even having their own musical sequence. The juxtaposition between that and the other side of Cassandra is delicious to witness, and makes her character much more fascinating.
The film has so many layers to it that every scene makes an impact. Fennell’s dialogue includes numerous lines that hit hard, going right at the culture that permits bad behavior by men. Everything about the story as a whole is so spot-on that it could be used as a teaching tool for college-aged men and above on how not to act toward women.
Also of note is the fun and interesting soundtrack, comprised entirely of music by women. Fennell highlights both obvious (“Boys” by Charli XCX) and non-obvious (“Stars are Blind” by Paris Hilton) songs, along with lesser-known artists and unexpected covers. Each of them fits the moment it’s paired with amazingly well, especially a haunting orchestral version of Britney Spears’ “Toxic.”
Mulligan is, quite simply, astonishing in her role. She uses a low and intimidating voice for much of the film that instantly puts the audience into her character’s mindset. It’s been 10 years since her lone Oscar nomination; she deserves another one here.
Burnham makes for a great romantic interest, offering up perhaps an exception that proves the rule of the other “nice guys” in the film. His casting is also notable as there might be a corollary with him directing the acclaimed Eighth Grade a couple of years ago; that oft-uncomfortable film and this one are equally unnerving, albeit in completely different ways.
Oscar-worthy movies usually have a much different flavor than Promising Young Woman, but there’s so much to appreciate about it that it’s easy put it among the best movies of the year. Fennell and Mulligan have combined to make a manifesto that should be seen — and heard — far and wide.
Promising Young Woman opens in theaters on December 25.