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Promising Young Woman Review: Black Comedy Is Star Turn For Carey Mulligan

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BY March 15, 2021

A recent review of Promising Young Woman sparked some controversy. The critic questioned Carey Mulligan’s casting in the lead role. Although he didn’t say it outright, the implication, at least to Mulligan, was that she wasn’t sexy enough for the role (she would end up getting nominated for the 2021 Golden Globes, although she wasn’t one of the winners). The fact that a critic would feel comfortable saying this in a review is perhaps the most glowing recommendation the movie could possibly receive.

She Had So Much Potential: A Promising Young Woman‘s College Years

promising young woman review image via Focus Features

Because that’s one of lead character Cassie’s points. It’s not about looks. That doesn’t matter. And to some people, nothing about a woman matters, at least not in her defense. That’s a hard lesson that Cassie learned a long time ago–what must seem like a lifetime ago. Back then, she and childhood best friend Nina were classmates in med school. Nina was the titular promising young woman. She was at the top of their class, after all.

But when Nina was drugged and raped, that didn’t matter. The school and their peers dismissed her in favor of the young men who participated in the attack. However, raping her in front of an audience wasn’t enough. They also tarnished her reputation. What did she expect, getting so drunk?

In the aftermath of all this, Nina withdrew from school. Cassie dropped out as well to look after her. Sadly, though, the traumatic experience left too deep a wound. We learn that Nina died by suicide.

Since then, Cassie has been devoted to a new mission. By day, she works, barely, at a coffee shop. By night, she goes out, always in a kind of costume, and plays bait. Again, her hotness is irrelevant. It’s her vulnerability that she’s selling. So she slumps on bar banquettes. She talks a little too loudly or she doesn’t talk at all, pretending to be on the verge of unconsciousness. And inevitably, some Nice Guy will lock her in his sights. He’ll offer to help her home, which somehow ends up as a detour to his place. And then she springs her trap.

Cassie’s been doing this for some time, judging by the notebook she keeps. But it’s unclear if she has some sort of endgame. Nevertheless, she seems content to keep plugging away at her vengeance. Then one day, former classmate Ryan (Bo Burnham) walks into the coffee shop. There is a spark. It’s already difficult enough trying to juggle her revenge habit with her disguise as an aimless young woman still living with mom and dad (Jennifer Coolidge and Clancy Brown). How will she juggle them both with her burgeoning relationship with Ryan? That’s a pickle in itself, but then she finds out that Ryan is still in touch with all the old gang. That includes, by the way, Nina’s rapist.

Promising Young Woman Review

promising young woman review image via Focus Features

In writing a review of Promising Young Woman, I can’t help but notice that other critics have described this film as a revenge “fantasy.” It certainly seems that way at first with its candy-colored palette and soundtrack of bubbly pop songs, including Charlie XCX’s “Boys” and Paris Hilton’s “Stars Are Blind.” And that’s how it functions for a bit, as Cassie goes after a succession of random men.

On that note, I must give props to the casting department. They defy expectation with Cassie’s prey by casting guys, like Adam Brody, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, and Sam Richardson, who usually play nerdy sweethearts. For the most part, the film is not interested in trafficking in stereotypes. Any type of person can be a predator.

And again, it’s not interested in fantasy. It would be easy to make that kind of movie. You can picture it right now. A sassy and/or an ironic song is playing on the soundtrack. Cassie has an encounter with a sleazy guy, effs him up, and then walks away “in slow-mo with a fire burning behind her,” as writer-director Emerald Fennell puts it. Not only does she get revenge, but she also gets away with it all.

While this does happen–Cassie gets away with it–for a while, things turn sharply once Ryan enters the picture. That means the return of other figures from their past, like Madison (Alison Brie), Joe (Max Greenfield), and of course, Al (Chris Lowell). The stakes are now higher, because at Cassie’s core, these stakes are the only ones that matter. The stress of it all clearly gets to her, but still, Cassie forges ahead, bent on revenge. What she finds isn’t a Hollywood perfect ending, but an inevitable one. It’s bleak and it’s real and it’s as moving as it intends to be.

Promising Young Woman is now available in theaters.

Let us know what you think by commenting here or on our social media.

featured image via Focus Features

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Salomé Gonstad is a freelance writer who grew up in the swampy wilds of south Alabama. When she's not yelling about pop culture on the internet, she's working on a supernatural thriller about her hometown. Also, we're pretty sure she's a werewolf. Email her at salome@comicyears.com.

Promising Young Woman

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