Promising Young Woman: Movie Review

Promising Young Woman is a 2020 film by Emerald Fennell starring the beautiful Carey Mulligan as the protagonist. It’s an interesting rape and revenge movie, pertaining to a sub-genre that has had many successful entries starting from the 1970s, with Meir Zarchi’s I Spit on Your Grave (1978) often mentioned as one of its most defining films.

Fennell’s movie has a few interesting elements that I liked: the remarkable social commentary, Mulligan’s talent (which I had already noticed in Drive, 2011), and the film being a millennial version of Tarantino’s Kill Bill (2003-2004).

It’s better not to reveal the plot of a film like this in order not to spoil it for those who haven’t seen it. The plot is surprising, and it’s actually hard to frame it in a single genre at least for the first two thirds of the movie. I can only say that, at the beginning of the story, the protagonist Cassie (Carey Mulligan) pretends to be drunk in nightclubs to be picked up by guys ready to take advantage of her. Then, when things start to go really wrong, she reveals to them that she’s in fact completely sober. Only once her background story and motivations are revealed it becomes clear why she’s doing that.

Promising Young Woman is, among other things, a film exposing the machismo that pervades our Western societies in which a girl should be afraid of losing control, for instance by getting drunk, because if then someone takes advantage of her, instead of appearing as a victim, she could be accused of having allowed the crime, for having drunk too much, or perhaps for having dressed in a provocative or slutty way. In other words, a guy can get drunk without risking too much, but a girl must be much more careful.

Fennell analyzes this asymmetry in multiple ways and from multiple points of view, showing how different people reacted to a sort of textbook sexual assault story. So we hear from the young people involved in the crime, their families, their lawyers, and others somehow involved in the affair. The picture that emerges, however dramatic, is unfortunately also very realistic.

The interesting thing is that the film, while denouncing all this, doesn’t forget its entertaining nature. The protagonist is a multifaceted character through which we discover a world that is on the one hand disturbing, but on the other hand is also funny and even surreal at times. The scenes at home with the parents (Clancy Brown and Jennifer Coolidge) are extremely funny, as well as those in Gail’s (Laverne Cox) cafeteria.

Promising Young Woman is convincing both when it veers towards romance and when it becomes a thriller, in mix of genres which surprisingly don’t clash with each other but instead allow the director to reiterate the social message in many different ways. That same message is even in the title, which paraphrases the sentence of a judge who defined as a promising young man 19-year-old Brock Turner who sexually assaulted an unconscious girl and basically got away with it in California in 2015.

I conclude by recommending this strange movie that perhaps lacks cohesion, but has lots of ideas and feels fresh despite tackling a theme which several movies have already explored before (think of 1988’s The Accused, although that one was devoid of the humor that Fennell channeled in her film). Ciao!

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