By Richard Chachowski
The premise for English actress Emerald Fennell’s directorial debut, “Promising Young Woman,” may seem a bit cliché at first: a woman approaching middle age seeks revenge for those responsible for the sexual assault of her best friend when the two were in college.
With that sort of summary, it’s easy to go into “Promising Young Woman” expecting it to be like a Lifetime movie. The film itself, however, is anything but cliché. Fennell offers a stark exploration of a very serious subject matter in a way few films have been able to do justifiably well, namely by depicting the mental trauma victims of sexual assault – along with their friends and family – suffer from after the fact.
It’s an impressive debut film: a dark comedy thriller that boasts an impressive cast, an amazing script, and an overall story that will leave audience members bewildered and disgusted at the injustice many victims of sexual assault face and, sadly, do not always overcome.
The main storyline for “Promising Young Woman” follows soon-to-be 30-year-old, Cassie Thomas (Carey Mulligan), a barista who dropped out of medical school years prior to care of her best friend: a victim of sexual assault whose claims were dismissed by the university staff and her close friends.
Every night, in order to cope with the trauma of her past, Cassie goes to a bar by herself and pretends to be helplessly inebriated. When “nice guys”– as they frequently call themselves – look to help Cassie back to her apartment in an attempt to take advantage of her intoxicated state, Cassie drops her act, forcing her would-be attackers into changing their behavior and acknowledging their predatory nature.
After a chance encounter with an old university acquaintance leads Cassie to learn that the man responsible for her friend’s assault is soon-to-be happily married, Cassie embarks on a path of revenge against those responsible.
I went into “Promising Young Woman” knowing almost nothing about it, except that it was warmly received when it debuted at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival early last year. Throughout its nearly two-hour runtime, I was equally shocked, disgusted, appalled, and sympathetic to the main character and the injustice she and her friend suffered.
“Promising Young Woman” is a dark, depressing movie, with scenes that are intense, emotional and sometimes difficult to watch, but no doubt this is an important movie – one that does not hold back when it comes to exploring such a grim topic as sexual assault.
Unlike other films that deal with the issue of sexual assault, “Promising Young Woman” focuses not just on the victims and the people responsible for these assaults, but examines the effects an assault has on the victims’ friends and family, including PTSD and mental trauma.
The film expertly examines the institutional injustices and social backlash victims often face, with many, including the victims’ friends, not believing the victim or believing instead the victim “was asking for it” – a phrase that comes up heartbreakingly too often in the film, along with “We were all drunk” and “We were just kids.”
Perhaps the strangest thing about this film is the cast. Admittedly, I was a little skeptical about a lot of the actors chosen to appear in the film, mostly due to the fact that many of them come from comedic backgrounds: Bo Burnham, Alison Brie, Clancy Brown, SNL alum Molly Shannon, Max Greenfield, who starred as Schmidt in “New Girl,” and even Christopher Mintz-Plasse, known for his iconic role as McLovin in the hit “Superbad.”
Looking back and seeing this cast in a film that heavily focuses on such a serious topic as sexual assault could be a little worrisome, with one perhaps wondering, “What is this actor doing in this movie?” However, by using a cast known mostly for their comedic roles, director Emerald Fennell perfectly balances the dual lives many of the characters lead, including charming, likable exteriors that hide the darker aspects of their pasts – namely their roles in allowing a sexual assault to take place. Having such actors also allows for the movie to indulge in a few genuinely funny moments that may seem a bit out of a place for a movie that deals with such serious subject matter, but also seems much-needed in a movie that’s often extremely difficult to sit through at some points.
I was also a little skeptical about the casting choice of Carey Mulligan – who I am not overly familiar with – for the main character. However, Mulligan perfectly embodies the character of Cassie, a woman confronting not only those responsible for her friend’s sexual assault, but also for what she feels is her own personal failure for not being able to properly take care of her friend when she needed it most. Mulligan acted her heart out for this role, so much so that I left the film thinking, “My god, why isn’t she starring in more movies?”
The entire cast does an amazing job at bringing their characters to life and illustrating one of the main themes of the movie: people’s lack of responsibility when it comes to admitting the part they played in either allowing a sexual assault to take place or not taking the victim seriously after the fact.
“Promising Young Woman” is a very dark, serious film advertised equally as both a dark comedy and a revenge film. Yes, the funny parts are funny, and the serious parts are indeed serious and oftentimes hard to watch, but all in all, this was a really impressive movie with a great cast and a tight script that really explores the topic of sexual assault in a way that doesn’t pull any punches.
Would I recommend it to someone who just wants something to watch on a lazy Sunday? Probably not. But I would categorize this film in the same vein as something as “Schindler’s List,” in that it is certainly a very serious movie that explores an extremely horrific subject matter, and is important for people to view in order to better understand just how widespread the issue of sexual assault is and to also understand what victims might go through years after the fact.
”Promising Young Woman” is available to stream through video on demand platforms and in theaters nationwide.