Promising Young Woman review – a dark comedy that may redefine the upcoming decade

By Marc Miller
Published: December 14, 2020 (Last updated: December 18, 2023)
Promising Young Woman review - a dark comedy that may redefine the upcoming decade


Promising Young Woman is a wicked film. Brave and ambitious. And one of the year’s very best.

Why won’t the studio system make more movies like Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman? It’s the type of work that can please everyone, from the casual movie fan to film aficionados, while having something to say in the process. It is the type of daring, innovative genre-bending film Hollywood needs to make more of. It’s a blend of revenge thrills and pitch-black dark comedy, all packaged within a Barbie’s Dreamhouse box set. It is practically addictive. It’s a wicked film. Brave, ambitious, and one of the year’s very best.

Promising Young Woman tells the story of Cassie (Wildlife‘s Carey Mulligan), a former med student who dropped out. She now works in a coffee shop with Gail (Laverne Cox) and lives at home with her bewildered parents (Jennifer Coolidge and Clancy Brown). Cassie dresses like Barbie during the day, but Lana Turner at night. At the same time, she also loves to play possum, acting drunk, and luring in men like the rape minded lemmings (played by a series of actors that include Adam Brody, Sam, Richardson, and Christopher Mintz-Plasse to name a few).

This all seems to be a sociological experiment of sorts for Cassie. Or is it? Is she just putting herself in harm’s way to see if chivalry is dead? Teaching a bunch of yuppie frat boys a lesson? Or is there a bigger plan? This is a dangerous game she is playing, which is her only motivation at the moment. That is until she reconnects with Ryan (Eighth Grade‘s Bo Burnham, with charm to spare here), her former med student classmate with a heart of gold. The now pediatric surgeon wants to finally pursue his school crush. Ryan also may offer Cassie some much-needed light at the end of the tunnel.

Who needs men when you can have an army of women? That was the thought that went through my head when the credits rolled on Fennel’s contemporary classic. The writer and director’s clever and cunning screenplay is an eclectic mix of dark comic thrills. Cassie plays the game like a Grandmaster chess player. She is always a half-dozen steps ahead of her opponent(s). Fennel’s narrative flips the script on the embarrassment and shame women feel after sexual assault. By contrast, showing the viewer how she victimizes and avenges her dark past by giving the boys a little slice, obviously not comparable, of their own medicine.

Some may argue that Promising Young Woman‘s shift in tone is an issue that prevents the film from executing its message. I would argue that point, vehemently. The reason that #MeToo was a major part of the social justice movements of the past decade is the unreported sexual assaults. Only 11% of sexual assaults are reported from women that happen in college. Even less if you are a minority. Additionally, only 2% of them are reported when alcohol or drugs are involved. Can you imagine not receiving help when experiencing posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and anxiety? Panic attacks, shame, anger control issues, irritability, depression, and suicide are all consequences of PTSD. Furthermore, the overall tone of the film mimics the highs and lows of mental health brilliantly.

Of course, the film is shouldered by Mulligan. Talk about avenging one of the most frustratingly bizarre Oscar nomination omissions the past decade when left off for her performance in 2018’s Wildlife. Ultimately, she gives one of the year’s best performances and it will surely be remembered as an iconic one. It’s a towering turn, a resilient one, that pushes boundaries of what will surely make mass audiences engaged and even uncomfortable. Cassie is a role that will be mulled over for years to come. You simply can’t picture anyone else in this role other than Mulligan. Cassie would make Harley Quinn proud and some could argue it could be her origin story.

We have been waiting for Promising Young Woman for almost a year. This proves patience is a virtue. Very rarely do films lives up to the hype and Fennel’s film does with exhilarating results. Films are a product of their time. I have mentioned a handful of times in reviews the words of Aaron Sorkin, “The things we do to women,” and I can’t think of a film that encompasses that phrase more.

Promising Young Woman tops them all. It’s brave, inventive, and daring. It’s a wickedly dark comedy that will redefine the upcoming decade in film.

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