In her feature film debut, actress-turned-director Emerald Fennell swings for the fences with an unapologetically bold thriller rooted in the conversations about #MeToo, consent and slut-shaming. Written and directed by Fennell, “Promising Young Woman” is a twisted tale of trauma and revenge with so many surprises that it may be hard to guess where the movie is going at times. Things shift from bad to good, hopeful to dreadful at quick speeds, adding to the chaos already within the story.
In the film, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, we first meet Cassie (Carey Mulligan) at a time when it looks as if she might be in trouble. As she unsteadily shifts in her seat from too much drinking, a man tries to take advantage of her until she snaps out of her false stupor to scare him out of his predatory behavior.
Cassie has a habit of luring men so she can teach them about consent. It’s her own vigilante secret hobby after she finishes work at a coffee shop with a supportive friend, Gail (Laverne Cox). However, Cassie’s parents are less-than-thrilled their once-promising daughter dropped out of medical school and continues to live with them with no sign that she’s moving out anytime soon.
Cassie’s avoidance routine is interrupted by the arrival of an old classmate, Ryan (Bo Burnham), who professes a longtime crush on her and asks her out. Inadvertently, his presence also brings up painful memories for Cassie, which are slowly revealed to be a traumatic event that led to the end of her dreams of becoming a doctor. Soon, scaring men away from raping women isn’t enough. She must go back to the people who let her and her friend, Nina, down all those years ago.
Despite some of the movie’s very dark tones, the color palette of Fennell’s world and Benjamin Kračun’s cinematography is bright and colorful. Cassie’s nails are painted different colors, and she usually wears pastel floral prints when not trying to trap guys and scare them. There’s a girlish quality to her that makes it seem as if she’s stuck in her early twenties when the unnamed incident first upended her life. The movie’s tone shifts from suspenseful to fun, and there is plenty of that in-between some pretty bleak plot points that are alluded to but not fully explained until near the end of the movie.
Mulligan looks to be enjoying the challenge of switching between the highs and lows of her character. It’s a part that calls for her to play an unsteady drunk, a heartbroken loner and an intimidating, no-nonsense woman, sometimes even in the same scene. There’s a sense of heroines from “Kill Bill,” “Lady Snowblood” and “Ms. 45” in Cassie, although with considerably less blood lust. Her chemistry with Burnham is so playful that Fennell wants the audience to root for them, even if Ryan is the reason behind Cassie’s new quest for revenge.
With so much ambition in “Promising Young Woman,” it feels like the movie wants to have its cake and eat it, too. Not every narrative turn feels germane to the story — some appear to be there simply because they’re unexpected.
Thanks to Mulligan’s electric performance and Fennell’s packed script, the movie never feels as if it lags, but it doesn’t go far enough to smooth over the choppy changes between the film’s witty moments and its stomach-churning dramatic scenes. However, there’s still a lot of promise in Fennell’s film, both in its message, its rape-revenge-influenced riff, and the boundaries it wants to push.
Focus Features will release “Promising Young Woman” in select theaters on Christmas Day; a premium VOD release is expected in January.