In her Oscar-winning debut feature, writer-director Emerald Fennell subverts the rape-revenge drama. Promising Young Woman is the story of Cassandra/ Cassie (Carey Mulligan), but it also about her childhood friend, the now deceased Nina. Like countless other faceless women, Nina represents those that suffer the ignominy of peer pressure and disbelieving adults who perpetuate abuse and sexism.
A medical school dropout, Cassie lives with her parents (Jennifer Coolidge, Clancy Brown) and works in a cafe. She spends most evenings going to clubs, pretending to be hopelessly drunk, waiting for predatory men to hit on her. They assume her intoxication is an access-all-areas pass to a one-night stand.
None of the men entangled in Cassandra’s net is prepared for what she has planned for them. They may ignore her drunken appeal but when it turns to a sharp sober challenge, these men are jolted. Cassie’s act is audacious and thrilling at first, but as it is replayed, the shades of despair, obsession and a measure of sadistic glee become clearer.
Alison Brie, Alfred Molina, Adam Brody, Laverne Cox, Christopher Mintz-Plasse and Molly Shannon also appear in what is essentially a Casey Mulligan show. Mulligan intriguingly interprets a woman with mischief and a modicum of cruelty, who revels in small victories but lives every day with pain, guilt and unfinished business. Cassie has remains untrusting until a meeting with Ryan (Bo Burnham), a young flirtatious doctor, and regret about her own actions lighten her spirit. But when Ryan reconnects her to old medical school memories, they are wildly triggering, sending Cassie into a spiral.
The pop colours (including Cassie’s notebook with a colour-coded scorecard) disguise the unsettling pre-climax. Moments of fun and cheeky humour, some hopefulness and uncomfortable actions and reactions are underlined by a soundtrack that is sometimes affected and at other times foreboding. Fennell and Mulligan deliver what they promise, from the design and performances to the tension and provocation.
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