Promising Young Woman

Promising Young Woman ★★★

Disappointing, only in the sense that I felt like there was the potential here for so much more. It could have been great, and it ended up being pretty good instead. My biggest complaint is that I kept wanting it to go deeper. I love that Emerald Fennell is here going after rape culture the way that this movie does, straight for the throat, but it also ultimately feels a little skin deep in its examination of it. The shift from how the movie sets us up initially, with Carey Mulligan’s character preying on any man repugnant enough to go after a woman at a bar who is too drunk to process what’s happening to her, to her exploring her past and us seeing the breakdown of one specific event and its ripples, is very well done.

I loved the shift partway through to this structure of Mulligan having a series of two-handers with some great actors where we see the many different sides of a situation like this, and how astronomically survivors of sexual assault can be failed by their friends, their elders, and even the law. Each scene opens up a new angle, and I honestly feel like this could have worked better with each of those scenes being given a lot more room to breathe. They’re all handled well, but especially the Alfred Molina scene felt way too abrupt and unsatisfying because there was so much more to be explored there. The Connie Britton scene works the best I think, and I thought the arc for Alison Brie’s character was very well done, particularly thanks to one of Brie’s finest performances to date.

The Bo Burnham stuff… thematically I think this is a very significant aspect of rape culture to explore, and without getting into any spoiler territory I think that the arc for the character and Mulligan’s relationship with him is one of the most insightful things that Fennell accomplishes. That being said, this whole part of the movie feels out of place with everything else going on, and I never bought that Mulligan’s character would go for it in the first place considering everything else we see of her. Then again, one of the issues I have with the movie is how much of a cipher Mulligan’s character comes off as. We get her modus operandi right away, and the movie struggles to give her much dimension beyond that. I never felt like I got a sense of who this person actually was beyond one component, and so that made certain parts of the movie a little hard to take in.

Having the POV of this be from her perspective, the friend of someone who was raped, rather than the victim herself, was a smart angle that gave it a new spin than the usual rape revenge movie that has existed for decades. That’s where Mulligan and the character shines the most for me, portraying this feeling of being the only one who sees this absolutely horrific thing wrong with the world and no matter what you do you can’t get everyone else to see it. The movie captures that feeling well. The bubblegum candy aesthetic wasn’t exactly my kind of thing, but Fennell pulls it off well and creates this almost comic book esque feeling where you’re slightly removed from reality, which I think helps some of the more outlandish moments in the movie go down smoother. It always feels like this is a little bit fantasy, slightly separated from the real world while still dealing with real world things.

Without spoilers, I’ll say that I liked where it seemed like the ending was going, but then didn’t necessarily care for the final scene that made things feel too wrapped up in a bow. I suppose it’s got this bittersweet satisfaction to it, but I thought the movie was headed in a far more realistic direction for how this whole thing was going to end, and I really admired the guts to go there. Then again, this does ultimately still feel a bit like a fantasy, and so I suppose the ending fits with that. There’s certainly a lot of talking points to come away from this with, but I wished there were more.

Watching it and constantly wanting it to push further kept reminding me of how incredible Michaela Coel’s HBO series from this year I May Destroy You is, and how that felt like it really pushed deep to expose the nasty truths of rape culture, and show things from so many different layers, really peeling back how we’re all flawed and have stuff to work on. Promising Young Woman is a little more black and white, a little more surface level, and a little less satisfying as a result. I’m glad that Mulligan is finally going to get her second nomination for this one after she’s missed out on so many times in the last 11 years where she should have been nominated. She’s one of our best working actors right now. This wouldn’t be in my top five performances of hers, but I’m not going to thumb my nose at her getting nominated for it.

Added to 2020 ranked

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