“Promising Young Woman” film review

An intriguing story on a timely topic with lots of promise; however, it ultimately leaves little room for redemption. But hey, Mulligan’s performance was truly outstanding! After being away from the cinema for over a month in the wake of my grandmother’s passing just before Christmas, I returned to the Universal Cinemark. Usually, I am on top of new theatrical releases, but I was unable to attend the cinema while out of town. So I am just now getting to Promising Young Woman. As such, I’ve been able to read tweets, read blogs, and listen to reviews of this film. Needless to say, I was expecting one of the best films of 2020; unfortunately, that is not the case. While the film showcases an exceptional performance by Carey Mulligan, and even a solid performance by Bo Burnham, the film fails to follow some basic narrative conventions. There was such a fantastic opportunity to comment on toxic college culture, including the epidemic of higher education covering-up sexual assault, the rationalization of not taking responsibility for one’s actions, and (this is where the film fails its audience) the ability for one to have a redemption arc. Where is the redemption in the film? Nowhere to be found. However, we have an excellent example of what happens when one refuses to forgive. Unforgiveness is like a poison that eats away at the mind and soul. Forgiveness does not equal forgetting nor pretending that everything is okay. For a film that was full of promising teachable moments, it succumbs to the narrative trap of an inability to acknowledge that change is possible. If Scrooge can be redeemed, so can we all.

Synopsis: Nothing in Cassie’s (Carey Mulligan) life is what it appears to be — she’s wickedly smart, tantalizingly cunning, and she’s living a secret double life by night. Now, an unexpected encounter with a former colleague Ryan (Bo Burnham), she sees this as a chance to right the wrongs from the past.

Before I get into the issues I take with the message, plot, and narrative, I want to highlight what the film delivered well. Standing out, is the phenomenal performance by Mulligan. While my personal principle of only watching/reviewing films that have an exclusive theatrical run limit the scope of what I can cover, from the 2020 films that I did see, her performance is certainly a standout from the year. This showcase performance is likely to land her a Best Actress in a Leading Role nomination at the Oscars and Globes. I greatly appreciate how the character of Cassie is both colorful, and glossy one moment, and dark and terrifying the next. Even simultaneously conveying the complexities of a character suffering from a personal hell brought on by unresolved trauma. The other performance of note is Bo Burnham’s as Ryan. While not as notable a performance as Mulligan’s, there is still a lot to be admired in this role, which is largely a departure from the majority of the roles from his past. This film serves as a conduit for him to showcase his acting chops in a more serious role. Even though his performance may not land him on any awards lists, it’s still a performance that will undoubtedly land him future leading roles. And hopefully one of those future roles will give him a more complex character to portray.

Despite my reservations with the plot, I cannot not acknowledge this directorial accomplishment by Emerald Fennell. Clearly, Fennell’s penchant for direction is witnessed in this film. While she has been nominated for her television screenwriting, where she shines in this film is in her role as director. Each scene is directed skillfully, and thoughtfully. Of all the great scenes, the one that stands out the most is the showdown between Cassie and Al Monroe at the bachelor party. Clearly, Fennell understands the power of nuance, and can communicate that throughout the film. Screenplays need writers who care, and films need directors who care. And Fennell inarguably cares about how each scene is executed and the characters therein.

Representation vs reality. There is a grand discussion topic; one that is core to film studies. In fact, just today, I was lecturing to my film studies students at the University of Tampa on representation vs reality. Whether or not the subjects on screen (people, places, things) exist within our reality, they are certainly representative of that which is real. And Fennell certainly leans heavily into representation of her version of reality. Unfortunately, in her warped version of reality, no one is written with an ability to acknowledge or take responsibility for past/current sins and then CHANGE, to experience a redemption arc. Instead, our central character of Cassie is written as a narcissistic, self-righteous young woman that goes through life as judge, jury, and executioner; she is prohibited from changing her worldview; likewise, the character of Ryan is prohibited from changing for the better, and is viewed through the lens of his reckless youth.

Most individuals, male or female, from Cassie’s past, are depicted as exhibiting deplorable behavior. The men of Promising Young Woman are especially depicted as reprehensible people. Even the likable character of Ryan, who is supposed to represent the actual “good guy” is sent to the metaphoric gallows for his past, despite the fact that he had demonstrably changed since college and had healthy, genuine romantic feelings for Cassie. The fact of the matter is, observational and statistical evidence shows that most men are NOT like the ones at the bar or in that video footage of the shameful, contemptible, disgusting sexual assault in college. Yes, some are, and they need to be held accountable for their egregious actions by law enforcement. And the leadership at universities needs to be held accountable for covering up these sexual assault crimes. Where the film excels is confronting both the dean of the college and the lawyer that protected Al Monroe from prosecution; these scenes are particularly powerful and provide commentary on a real problem that needs to be dealt with. Even the showdown between Cassie and Monroe provides thoughtful content to discuss and provide a wakeup call for those that engage in sexually criminal behavior as college students. Furthermore, the film does a brilliant job at exploring just how those that commit “drunken” sexual assault can rationalize why they aren’t actually responsible for their actions. Terrifying, but true.

The films does the characters of Cassie and Ryan a gross disservice. We’ll start with Ryan. While he was certainly complacent in the sexual assault against Nina, and should be confronted, he changed since his college days. He should’ve been given the opportunity to acknowledge his past, and demonstrate how he has experienced a personal redemption arc. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t still consequences, but people CAN change. He could’ve also been an example of the fact that there are actual good guys out there. This would’ve shown Cassie that she cannot assume that all men are despicable, despite the narrative she has experienced; thus acknowledging the error in judgement of her worldview. She isn’t without blemishes on her own record either; therefore, she cannot personally go around condemning all those she deems unworthy of forgiveness. Ryan is a relatable character because he is the most human out of all of them. He isn’t perfect, and he certainly doesn’t pretend to be. He has made mistakes, just like all of us. Granted, his mistake in being complacent during and after the sexual assault he was witness was a terrible one; but he certainly changed in the years following the tragic crime.

And now for Cassie. When we refuse to forgive someone that has wronged us (whether that wrong is mostly harmless or criminally abominable), it’s important to forgive as to not become a prisoner of our mind. Now, forgiveness does NOT mean forgetting, nor does it mean that everything is as it was before. Trust is still broken, lives are still lost, trauma is still experienced. Unforgiveness is like drinking poison; it’s like constructing a personal prison because it’s a toxic mindset that still allows the wrong-doer to have power over the life of the individual that was wronged. To the film’s credit, this toxic behavior is depicted quite well in the character of Cassie, as her refusal to forgive, to release herself from the prison of her mind, ultimately leads to her destruction. Much like the plot does not allow Ryan to be forgiven after his demonstrable change, the film also does a disservice to its central character, because Cassie never changes. There is a glimmer of change, but is quickly shattered. In this film, there were great teachable opportunities (1) to illustrate that there are good guys out there even if their past isn’t spotless (2) that Cassie’s lack of forgiveness is toxic, and prevents her from experiencing a healthy mind and spirit and (3) Ryan could’ve acknowledged and dealt with the idea that complacency contributes to the larger institutional problem of sexual assault in college. This film paints a portrait that change and redemption are impossible concepts.

For all the promise that this film had for a comprehensive approach to teen and college sexual assault, and the cover-up thereof, it fails to provide any avenues for redemption, which hinders the narrative from having the emotional impact it should’ve had. It ultimately falls victim to its own narcissistic self-righteous central character in a revenge plot that leaves no room for redemption. But, this film is a great exercise in the emotional and psychological affects that the lack of forgiveness has upon the mind and soul that ultimately leads to a toxic self-prison.

Ryan teaches screenwriting and film studies at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with or meet him in the theme parks!

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