This time last year, I was writing about the film that ultimately landed at the top of my Best Films of 2019 list: Greta Gerwig’s Little Women. In Gerwig’s capable hands, Louisa May Alcott’s all-American story of the March sisters growing up in the shadow of the Civil War became a sort of feminist treatise on choice, agency and self-reliance, as each young woman claims her right to live her life exactly as she wishes. It’s an adaptation of the classic story that is unlikely to have emerged from a male filmmaker’s imagination, and perhaps not even from a woman’s at any other moment except for now (even Gillian Armstrong’s endearing 1994 version isn’t quite so unabashedly modern in its sentiments).
I find myself in a similar state of appreciation for Emerald Fennell’s bold and brave Promising Young Woman, a movie that may not land at the very top of my Best Films of 2020 list, but will be very near there. Similar to Gerwig, Fennell (who wrote the original script) has created something unapologetically feminist, a film that would be unimaginably different (and deficient) had it been the story of Cassandra (Carey Mulligan) as told by a man. Instead, Fennell lays bare the scary realities of life as a woman in patriarchal America and all the danger that comes with it, creating in the process a sort of flawed super-heroine in Cassie, a woman who’s mad as hell and not going to take it any more. That the film detours into romantic comedy territory at one point and ends in a shock that I implore you not to spoil for yourself or (after you’ve seen it) anyone else only makes Cassie’s journey even more relatable; she’s a woman on a mission, but her route isn’t always a straight one and she’s not always in control of the destination.
For reasons we don’t first understand, Cassie—who works as a barista at a local coffee shop after abruptly dropping out of medical school—spends her weekends out clubbing. She flies solo, done up in a strong eye, a bold lip and fuck-me heels, and when she gets to the club, she soon puts on as if she’s wasted. Without fail, some guy reads her inebriation as an invitation for action, taking the “opportunity” to bring Cassie home and, he thinks, have his way with her. It’s somewhere in the midst of whatever pawing or prodding the guy is doing that she snaps to attention and calls the asshole out on his bad behavior, much to his shock and, at least as he’d like us to believe, embarrassment. What happens after this moment of reckoning Fennell leaves to our imagination, but Cassie’s diary full of hash marks tracking her progress seems to indicate that she’s in a take-no-prisoners state of mind.
It’s not until Ryan (Bo Burnham, an inspired casting choice), a former classmate of Cassie’s, comes into the coffee shop one day that we begin to learn about the incident in her past that’s driven her to making these revenge fantasies a reality. The details emerge slowly, but (and this isn’t spoiling anything that’s not in the trailer) it involves a dear friend of hers, an attack on campus and a less-than-adequate response from the administration and authorities. As even Cassie herself learns more disturbing details about the night in question, her grasp on what would constitute justice, payback and/or closure becomes so muddled, it’s hard for her to tell what’s what any more.
In the midst of Cassie’s post-traumatic stress (and her deranged way of dealing with it), Ryan begins courting her in a fashion that’s so genuine and sweet even Cassie’s jaded heart gives in to it eventually. Damaged soul that she is, she still finds a soft spot for this tall, charming dope, letting herself believe in love for a brief, shining moment. And who can blame her? For all they put us through, all the mind games they’re capable of and all the terror they inflict on us, women are still raised to want a man, to feel like it’s a man who’ll make us complete. And suckers that we are, when “a good one” comes along, it’s all too easy to think, “this could be it! He could be the one!” Cassie falls for Ryan despite herself; he patiently breaks down her very fortified defenses, and soon they’re belting along to a cheesy Paris Hilton song in the middle of a drug store. Anyone who’s ever been lost in the early flush of new love will get it, immediately.
But, contrary to what we may want to believe, love does not conquer all. Cassie and Ryan’s shared past eventually catches up with them, and with a new resolve, she decides to finally get the revenge she’s seeking once and for all. The choices Fennell makes in the film’s penultimate scene will, to a certain portion of the audience, feel inauthentic and contrived. That portion of the audience is wrong. That portion of the audience does not know what it is to walk with your car keys between your fingers, a weapon at the ready as you leave the office alone late at night. That portion of the audience doesn’t know what it is to decline the “nice” offer of a drink from a stranger at a bar because you didn’t see the bartender pour it with your own eyes. That portion of the audience hasn’t been overpowered by someone strong enough to kill you if he’s angry enough. More than once, Pretty Young Woman dares to take a “big swing” with its narrative, and while they don’t all land, this one couldn’t have gone any other way.
Mulligan plays Cassie with a biting sense of certainty, even as she’s encouraged by those who should be similarly outraged to stand down, to move on. In a curious but entirely welcome casting decision, she’s surrounded by actors mostly known for their comedic roles, from Jennifer Coolidge (A Mighty Wind, Legally Blonde) as her worried, pestering mother to Alison Brie (“Community,” “GLOW”) as a former classmate who made light of that traumatic event and Max Greenfield (“The New Girl”) as one of the bros caught up in Cassie’s ultimate revenge plot. Burnham does “nice guy” to a T (probably because he really is one), making Ryan’s fall from grace all the more disappointing (or, as the cynics might say, expected). This ensemble cast populates a world defined by bright, vivid colors, making it all the more grating to think that joy and vitality can still exist when tragedy and injustice lurk around every corner.
The film’s title is a play on a phrase used by the judge who sentenced rapist Brock Turner to a scant six months in jail (of which he only served three); during the sentencing, he called Turner a “promising young man” and explained his decision was made so as not to derail the young man’s life entirely. The sheer audacity in that perspective, that it is his fate one should be most concerned about without even a mention of his victim’s, is infuriating. Fennell channels that fury into a searing, sharp send-up of a culture where women are always an afterthought, daring to put one at the center of a conversation about what happens to our bodies, when and by whom. That the film ultimately follows through on the devastating effects of such a brazen claim on one’s independence should be seen as infuriating in its own right, if only because it’s so inevitable.