AT THE MOVIES: Promising Young Woman is as thoroughly impressive as it is bold

By Doug Laman
Special to the Anna-Melissa Tribune

“Promising Young Woman” concerns Cassie, a thirty-year-old working in a coffee shop. She spends her nights pretending to be intoxicated at bars so that she can intimidate the guys who try to assault her. Everything about her current life stems from her abrupt drop-out of medical school five years prior, which coincided with a tragedy involving sexual assault at her school. While the guys accused of this act have been able to move on and secure financers, Cassie is still tormented by the past. Now, she's beginning to execute a plan of revenge for the past just as hope for the future emerges through a new relationship with former classmate Ryan (Bo Burnham).

It's already been said that “Promising Young Woman” is a bit of a “Drive”-scenario, where the marketing is selling one movie while the actual film is something else entirely. That turns out to be a bit true since “Promising Young Woman's” marketing couldn't convey how much of this film centers around the psychological trauma Cassie is dealing with. Cassie isn't depicted as "crazy" so much as she's stuck in a society where closure for her trauma is impossible. Everyone else just wants to sweep under the rug the horrors that keep her up at night. It's important to maintain the reputations of college-aged boys, not offer support for women in distress. 

These rules of reality provide the impetus for Cassie's new double-life and her inability to move on to the future. Writer/director Emerald Fennell does exceptional work rendering the complexities of Cassie’s psychology. I especially love how her exploration so thoroughly challenges the viewer as to how they should be feeling about what they're seeing on-screen. Should we be thrilled at Cassie becoming a quasi-vigilante? Should we be distressed that this is the lengths people have to go to in a society that dismisses the humanity of sexual assault survivors? It's all so messy, but appropriately so. Nobody surviving extreme trauma comes out with a tidy psyche and Cassie is no different. 

Through the exploration of Cassie as a character, we see how well “Promising Young Woman” keeps the viewer on their toes. This is further reflected in the clever casting, which is primarily filled out by actors playing against type. Comedic actor Molly Shannon, for instance, gets a one-scene appearance as a grieving mother. Meanwhile, fellow comic performers Christoper Mintz-Plasse and Allison Brie get to play antagonistic figures embodying the systemic misogyny Cassie is being crushed under. Best of all in this style of casting is Jennifer Coolidge and Clancy Brown as Cassie's parents. Who knew Brown could channel the soft-spoken dad routine so well? He evokes Tracy Letts in “Lady Bird” here and it's such an unexpected but welcome turn from the guy.

Of course, it's impossible to talk about the cast of “Promising Young Woman” without bringing up Carey Mulligan. The whole movie revolves around her turn as Cassie and she proves to be more than up for the challenge. Mulligan's experience with capturing interior anguish in films like “Brothers” and “Wildlife” means she's more than prepared to tackle all the pent-up horrors stirring up inside Cassie. But her handling of dark comedy, an area we haven't seen her explore much before, proves especially impressive here. Her glib line delivered excellently reflected the detached nature of Cassie. To boot, Mulligan gives Cassie a constant air of unpredictability that always puts you on edge. It's like even Mulligan isn't 100% sure what this character is capable of and it makes for a livewire of a performance.

Carey Mulligan stars as Cassie and Bo Burnham stars as Ryan in director Emerald Fennell’s "Promising Young Woman."

The clear layers of thought put into “Promising Young Woman's” performances extend into the film’s visual qualities, which include the use of bright colors (Cassie's fingernails that each have their own vibrant hue is a great touch) and the different outfits Cassie wears out to her nighttime bar trips. “Promising Young Woman” gives one so much to contemplate on every level, including in its bravura ending that pulls a Trojan Horse in sneaking a haunting ending into a seemingly upbeat conclusion. A boldly-realized concoction, all the creative promise apparent in “Promising Young Woman's” opening scene endures right until the credits begin to roll.

A lifelong movie fan and writer, Douglas Laman graduated from UT Dallas and is currently a graduate student at the University of North Texas. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Texoma Marketing and Media Group.