Sundance Review: ‘Promising Young Woman’ Delivers On Its Promise

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2020 SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL: Film history is full of revenge stories, and so many of them center on victimized women. Whether it is a big strong man who must avenge his love’s honor, or a woman who fights back against her attackers, it’s a story that gets told again and again with, frankly, little variation.

Along comes Emerald Fennell to change the narrative. The writer and executive producer of “Killing Eve” makes her directorial debut with one of the festival’s most talked about films, “Promising Young Woman.”

Carey Mulligan is Cassie Thomas, a barista in a local coffee shop who spends her free nights trolling clubs for “nice guys.” She lets them think she’s black out drunk and all alone so that they can oh-so-heroically give her a ride. And when they inevitably get her back to their place and think they’re about to score, she makes them pay. But her random acts find a new focus when Ryan (Bo Burnham), a former classmate, wanders back into her life and reawakens a need to avenge a specific event from her past.

Some of this probably sounds like your standard victim-turns-avenging-angel tale, but it is far from standard. Cassie may spend her days making coffee for hipsters now, but seven years ago, she was a med student with top grades and a best friend as close as a sister. Now she’s stuck and spinning her wheels. Her parents (Jennifer Coolidge and Clancy Brown) give not-so-subtle nudges toward moving out. Her boss, Gail (Laverne Cox), tells her about job openings much more suited to her brains and talent.

Everyone wants Cassie to move forward with her life, though she lacks the motivation until Ryan enters the picture, unwittingly drudging up the past. Ryan is everything Cassie planned to be and everything she still wants. Mulligan is perfect in the role. She conveys Cassie’s strength, intelligence, and cool, detached confidence, mixing it with the anger that always bubbles just beneath the surface. Burnham’s Ryan is charming and self-deprecating and exactly the kind of nice guy Cassie wants to believe in.

In “Promising Young Woman,” Fennell, who wrote the script in addition to directing, captures so many of the frustrations and hassles women experience simply by going about their day. Men who think women owe them attention, or who think it’s cute to demand a smile. Dealing with men who proclaim themselves incapable of hurting anyone by declaring themselves nice guys. Men (and women) who think the past doesn’t matter if you were “just a kid,” although the definition of a kid seems to change based on who hurt whom. Fennell also takes on the troubling nature of women who protect and defend abusers. This is a film that says yes, all men (and some women). Of course they aren’t all attackers and abusers, but anyone who stands by and says nothing, who shrugs and says it isn’t their business, or who doesn’t believe victims is part of the problem.

The elements of story and performance are tied together neatly with a soundtrack and score that accentuate a tone that is sometimes playful and sometimes terrifying. The tones shift from comedic to thrilling, mixing in a bit of romance and horror along the way. It’s a great balance of moods that mirrors the moods and tonal shifts of real life. Never has Britney Spears’ “Toxic” been used more perfectly.

What makes “Promising Young Woman” stand out from other films of its nature is that it goes against what we’ve come to expect. It is surprising and subversive, and a cathartic experience for women. Emerald Fennell is an exciting new voice in film. If this is where she’s starting, it’s exciting to imagine where she can go from here.

“Promising Young Woman” is distributed by Focus Features and will be in theaters April 17, 2020.

GRADE: (★★★★)