Oscars 2021: Promising Young Woman review
Promising Young Woman, the debut film of writer-director Emerald Fennell, has attracted equal parts acclaim and criticism since it first premiered at Sundance in 2020. The film (which is nominated for a total of 5 Oscars) follows Cassie Thomas (Carey Mulligan), who dropped out of medical school following the suicide of her best friend, Nina. Now, at age 30, Cassie works as a barista and lives at home with her concerned parents (Jennifer Coolidge and Clancy Brown).
Week after week, Cassie visits nightclubs and pretends to be drunk, and week after week, without fail, a different man comes to see if she’s okay, before taking her home—his home. He offers her another drink (though she’s ostensibly had plenty) or drugs. Sometimes, he simply waits for her to pass out. Fennell’s choice of actors to play these men is a stroke of genius. From Adam Brody (beloved hot-dork Seth Cohen of The O.C. fame) to Christopher Mintz-Plasse (the eccentric ‘McLovin’ from cult classic Superbad), Fennell perfectly captures the kind of unsuspecting male who is able to do insidious things with ease by virtue of their ‘nice guy’ persona.
Eventually, the impetus for Cassie’s behaviour is uncovered, as it’s revealed that Nina committed suicide after she was the victim of a violent sexual assault during a college party that she attended alone. Years later, Cassie is neither able to forget about the incident nor forgive herself for her perceived failure to protect Nina from the men who harmed her. One horrific act, two lives irrevocably impacted. And as for the others – those who participated, those who watched, those who undermined the accusations, they went on as if nothing happened. They don’t even remember Nina’s name.
The film's introduction of Ryan (Bo Burnham), a former classmate of Cassie's who is now a paediatric surgeon, catapults the film into romantic-comedy territory and Cassie into a brief flirtation with normalcy. But when Ryan reveals some information about their shared college acquaintances, Cassie enacts a new form of vengeance upon those women who ignored the incident all those years ago. Whether it's the college dean (Connie Britton) who failed to properly investigate an assault accusation, or the friend of a rape victim who turned a blind eye (Alison Brie), the film indicates that, to varying degrees, everyone – male and female – is complicit, and everyone must be held accountable.
Despite being the central character with whom our loyalties should lie, Cassie isn’t always easy to empathise with, and her actions, however justified, create an uneasiness that's difficult to ignore. Mulligan’s performance as Cassie is masterful: she is brilliant, sharp, tragic, and vindictive all in the same breath – making her an unlikely, complex hero whose own motivations leave you questioning at every turn. Ultimately, it is through Cassie that Fennell is able to deftly interrogate the profound impacts of trauma on an individual’s psyche.
The film escalates to an explosive, devastating, and hilarious climax. Indeed, the tone of the film is difficult to determine. One moment, it’s terrifying, painful, and disturbing. The next, it’s laugh-out-loud funny, particularly in its depiction of the behaviour that women endure from men – the nice guys, the frat house bros, and everyone in between. And while it could be dismissed as a feminist polemic which tarnishes all men with the same brush, in reality, Promising Young Woman is a powerful examination of rape culture, masculinity, and womanhood as performance. Above all, it's trauma in motion; a unifying catharsis that allows women to sit back and think, “Ha – she gets it, too.”