Promising Young Woman (2020)

Baggies Nomination #1:

English actor turned director Emerald Fennell brings us the deliciously entertaining darkly comedic “Promising Young Woman” (2020), which tells the story of Cassie Thomas (Carey Mulligan like we’ve never seen her before), a med school drop out with a new secretive life. After her best friend Nina Fisher suffered a mysterious tragedy, the two girls halt their studies so Cassie can help her friend recover. However, from what we can see of the present day, her friend did not recover, and Cassie has made it her mission to get the justice that Nina never received.

Cassandra “Cassie” Thomas, since leaving school, works at a coffee shop owned by her friend (Laverne Cox), where she mostly reads and ignores the more bubbly clientele. She lives with her parents (Jennifer Coolidge in a more brooding role than her usual & Clancy Brown), who desperately, but uselessly try to revive their daughter to the “promising young woman” she was before. Her secret, though, is that once a week, she dresses up and makes her way to one of the late night clubs in the area. She stays sober, but makes herself look drunk. Not just drunk, but wobbly, incoherent, on-the-verge-of-passing-out black out drunk. Then she waits for vulturous men to make their way to her, offer her a ride home, “come to her rescue.” And each time, they take her home, feed her more drinks, and come dangerously close to having sex with her. That is until she reveals to them how sober she is – to their horror and befuddlement. The audience is left curious about why this has become a constant in her life. She keeps a running tally in her notebook. Does she follow up with these men? Does she have an end goal?

It is clear that she is stubborn in this brigade. She has constructed everything else in her life to accommodate this “experiment” – maintaining a non-existent social life, refusing to work anywhere that would allow her enough money to move out of her parents home, and shrouding her entire existence in mystery. Then enters Bo Burnham as Ryan, a former classmate of hers who recognizes her and admits a heavy interest in dating her. Reluctant at first, she begins to open up, and her alignment with him begins to alleviate her from her commitment to her double life.

The film marketed itself with the same flare and gumption of an exploitation crime drama. The soundtrack is oozing with stylized gems, like Britney Spears’ “Toxic” and “Stars are Blind” by Paris Hilton, which gives the darker material a more accessible tone. Cassie is a true Maneater, and any great predator knows how to make their prey most vulnerable. She dresses in unassuming pastels with long flowing hair and multi-colored nail polish to give the impression that she would not have it in her to hate them. This is not on accident, and costume designer Nancy Steiner made sure to get into the frame of mind that Cassie would have with her approach. However, the film is much more thoughtfully arranged than a typical exploitation film. Instead of the film generating an opportunity to flashily exploit the femme fatale, our heroine creates an image of this genre herself in order to manipulate her situations. And “Promising Young Woman” delivers a nuanced commentary on rape culture and it packs a punch, but definitely not in the obvious ways one might expect after viewing the trailer. The hits are more subtle, conversational, micro. The film reveals how those are just as important.

There is a lot to say about this film, but one of the most exciting aspects of it is its creativity. “Promising Young Woman” is somewhat genre bending and the writing is so unique, it genuinely feels new and refreshing. Mulligan’s performance is startling and flawless – which is not surprising, but to see her in a character as reckless, meticulous and threatening as this, is. She shines. The rest of the cast was also cleverly choiced – bringing in a selection of the most charming men on television – Schmidt from “New Girl” (Max Greenfield), Seth from “The OC” (Adam Brody), freakin’ McLovin’ (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) – only to obliterate our assumptions about their role. The film was produced by Margot Robbie’s production company, LuckyChap Entertainment (responsible for the heavy hitters “I, Tonya” and “Birds of Prey”), but Robbie chose not to cast herself. When discussing this with Hollywood Reporter, Robbie said, “I think I’m who people would expect to be cast in this.” But the most delightful thing about Promising Young Woman is that it takes you by surprise, and I just felt like I wouldn’t be that surprising — me doing these kinds of things with people’s perception of who I am and the characters that I’ve played. Carey Mulligan, however, is an actress that has this air of prestige around her. She’s in period dramas. Throw her in Promising Young Woman, and people’s minds get blown.”

Ultimately, Fennell has seemingly done the impossible. She has made a fun film about some really grotesque realities, managing to both shed light and to entertain. The tone is tough to pull off, and for the most part she does so. There are a lot of bold choices and yet, the way that the film does not necessarily pan out to be a slasher film feels unexpected and possibly even initially disappointing. But this is the type of film that feels like an experience, and gets better with each viewing. With the guesswork out of the way, the story stands on its own to be enjoyed, discussed, contemplated and agonized over. It is truly a brilliant work of art and a notable directorial debut for Fennell.

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