When the credits start scrolling, you already know Promising Young Woman is gonna polarize viewers.
Cassie (Carey Mulligan, The Great Gatsby) lives her days as a disappointment to her parents—a med school dropout working in a coffee shop, still living at home as she heads into her 30s. After some unknown incident involving her best friend Nina, Cassie changes course to exact revenge on frat boys who take advantage of women when they can't defend themselves, but when Ryan (Bo Burnham, writer/director of Eighth Grade) comes into her life, a different avenue becomes possible, tearing her between justice and love.
And…it's unconventional. Mulligan has built a career thus far as a farily run-of-the-mill love interest, and this one seems a risky choice. Her chemistry with Burnham is remarkable, however, and it's otherwise her magnetic self-assuredness that gives an unlikeable character such a delightful justice to her vigilantism. It's kind of a career breakthrough for the actor, noteworthy enough for a new section on her Wikipedia page—she feels free in a tough, uncompromising nature.
Not a bad first cinematic foray for director Emerald Fennell (Killing Eve's show-runner), who looks to be a great new voice in the medium. Even as she guides an imperfect narrative through a Candy Land color palette, confidence shines with bold and unapologetic choices. She knows what she's doing here, and trusts audiences are smarter than general assumption allows. Fennell molds our expectations in real time, dropping hints that at any moment, the rug's gonna be pulled out from under us.
Promising Young Woman shocked, awed and infuriated audiences at Sundance, but the on-the-nose nature of its storytelling could be vital in reaching ever-dense male audiences. Even its title comes from the infamous "promising young man" quote at the Brock Turner rape trial—a key point, as Fennell knows society gives men the benefit of the doubt every time. This one exploits our internalized biases.
+ A+ chemistry; confident direction; Mulligan soars
– Bit on-the-nose; some logical holes
Promising Young Woman
Directed by Emerald Fennell
With Mulligan and Burnham
Amazon Prime and Youtube, R, 113 min.