An alternate title to Emerald Fennell’s deliciously nasty Promising Young Woman might be Nice Young Men. Because the film, which is arguably the first great thriller of the #MeToo movement, is as much about our titular heroine as it is about the boys: the nice boys, the boys who made one mistake, the boys who were too drunk to know better, the boys who have their whole futures ahead of them—after all, we can’t destroy their lives over one little mistake, can we? It seems that our society is more invested in protecting those Nice Young Men than it is protecting their victims. (And besides, it’s “he said, she said,” plus she was drunk, plus she shouldn’t have been in his room, plus her skirt was too short, plus, plus, plus…).
So, this is a different kind of revenge thriller, one where our hero, the beautiful, brilliant, and damaged Cassandra (Carey Mulligan), entraps men (and their enabling women) into revealing their true selves. She had been a med student, top of her class, when an incident occurred (it’s best that I don’t reveal what) that completely derailed her life. Now she works at a coffee shop—even her boss (Laverne Cox) seems astonished by her complete lack of ambition—and lives with her disappointed parents (Jennifer Coolidge and Clancy Brown), who wonder what happened to a daughter who once afforded them bragging rights.
This is all very sad and disturbing stuff, but the film’s boldest provocation is presenting it all as a stylish black comedy.
Cassandra goes to night clubs, dressed in scanty slip dresses or sometimes naughty schoolgirl attire, and pretends to be black-out drunk. Then she waits for a guy to come take advantage of her. They always do.
When it comes to that incident from med school, what Cassandra’s really looking for is an apology, a reckoning—for the people involved to understand that they were part of something terrible. She wants them to suffer, to be haunted, like she is. And if they don’t suffer, well, she’ll make sure that they do.
Then, into this mix comes a nice boy (they exist, right?), played by Bo Burnham in full charm offensive mode. A former classmate of Cassandra’s, now a pediatric surgeon, he woos her and makes her laugh and sticks around until she has no choice but to lower her defenses and let him into her heart. Will this be the beginning of her healing? (No comment.)
Promising Young Woman is like nothing I’ve ever seen. It’s jaunty, downright good-humored, even as it’s wrecking you. It’s a fantasy of course—people don’t process trauma by turning into dominatrix revenge machines. All credit to Carey Mulligan for calibrating the tricky character so brilliantly. On the one hand, she seems all-powerful, the mistress of her domain. On the other, she’s a mess, a lost child, a basket case. The film knows revenge isn’t the answer. It certainly isn’t justifying her behavior. Well, not much at least.
Promising Young Woman opens exclusively in theaters on Christmas Day. No streaming date has been released yet.