Content warning: This film discusses issues surrounding sexual assault
The opening shot sequence to Emerald Fennell’s directorial debut Promising Young Woman (2020) says it all. As the names of cast and crew members fade in and out, men’s crotches at a sweaty nightclub fill the screen in slow motion. Nothing about the angle of the camera—sitting at waist height—is flattering and none of the men dancing are portrayed to be sexy in any way. The movements are vulgar and awkward, extremely comical, and instantly made me question their presence at the beginning of the movie. It has been no secret that Fennell’s film deals with themes like sexual assault and revenge, which made this inital mood puzzling. After finishing the film, however, the reason for this choice was clear.
There is no single tone to this movie. Although the first shots of the film are funny and even a little disgusting, the following conversation between three men at the bar is blood boiling. Our lead, Carey Mulligan’s character Cassie, sits alone at a booth, looking obviously drunk and in need of help. Meanwhile, the three friends watching her discuss how women in her state are basically “asking to be taken advantage of.” Although one of the guys looks over at Cassie sadly and doesn’t ‘participate’ in his friends’ commentating, he eventually follows through with what his friends originally insinuate. As he starts to undress her back at his apartment, blatantly ignoring her verbal cues of discomfort, the score darkens. Cassie sits up and calmly reminds him that she asked him to stop, almost smiling, revealing that she has been faking her inebriated state the whole time. In the span of the first ten minutes of the movie, the viewer is taken from comedy, to bad frat movie, to horror, and then brilliantly into a revenge thriller. And this seems to be exactly Fennell’s overarching intent.
Just as the opening shots show, Promising Young Woman is about the darkest side of malesexuality. But like most things in life, there’s always comedy buried in the mix, popping out unexpectedly in between moments of sadness and fear. As Cassie is stuck processing her best friend’s sexual assault, the subsequent psychological struggles, and the frustration that comes with dealing with an incompetent justice system, we see her go through constant shifts in tone. One minute, she’s confronting “nice guys” with their own hypocrisy and horrific lack of humanity, and the next Christopher Mintz-Plasse is planting little kisses on the tip of her nose like a hummingbird. Likewise, in the middle of a movie filled with very intense emotions, Bo Burnham—playing Cassie’s old friend from medical school—has an entire scene where he gets to lip sync to Britney Spears in a record store. Peppered throughout this story of a girl trying to scare men into realizing their predatory tendencies is genius comedic timing from cast members such as Burnham, Jennifer Coolidge, and Laverne Cox; a hopeful and sweet romantic subplot; and a neon bubblegum aesthetic that echoes the film’s overtly feminine feel. In short, this film was an honest but entertaining look into the reality of being a woman exposed to sexual assault in our culture.
Finally, a movie about sexual assault and accountability is not limited to the psychological misery it causes. Yes, Fennell does showcase Cassie’s understandable rage and sadness—particularly how her trauma may cause her to lash out at others, even when she is the one most hurt by her past. Yes, we see her tears, her obsessing, and her difficulties with consensual sexual relationships. Yes, the way in which college administrators make excuses and the way women play into victim-shaming culture is put on full, frustrating display. But Cassie is also allowed to laugh. She’s even allowed to fall in love with a guy who isn’t a knight in shining armor on a white horse. It’s clear, and deeply appreciated, that making room for all the possible emotions that Cassie could have while also telling a pointed story about something as traumatic as rape was not only intentional on Fennell’s part, but it was also admirably executed.
Despite the happiness this brought me, do not mistake me in thinking that this movie will leave you feeling content. Another brilliant aspect to Fennell’s storytelling that’s related to the shifting tonal quality is her willingness to unsettle her viewers and leave them unsettled. There are very few scenes that have clear moral implications or that resolve a character’s feelings which combined with the complex topic of sexual assault, left me questioning how I felt consistently throughout the film. Without spoiling too much, Cassie’s story is not one meant to overtly inspire or heal. In an interview with Collider, Fennell said,“What I didn’t want to make was something that you left the movie theater and thought ‘Well, great! I don’t need to think about that again!’ You want people to leave the movie theater and sit down opposite whoever they went with at dinner and think ‘I don’t know’…that’s what you want.”
Although Mulligan and Burnham’s performances are deeply believable, funny, and fit better with the fluctuating tenor of the movie as a whole than many of the rest of this year’s movie casts, the real star of Promising Young Woman is Emerald Fennell’s craftsmanship. For her first role as director, she decided to tackle the enormously complicated topic of sexual assault and realized that there was no one genre to do so.
The Voice’s readers have an opportunity to view a virtual screening of Promising Young Woman on Jan. 14, 2021 at 7:30pm. Visit this link to RSVP!