Promising Young Woman

Promising Young Woman ★★

my first movie of 2021! if there's anything i can say, i'm grateful i watched it because it made me WANT to write, which is very rare for me nowadays – most of my reviews are one-liners about how hot the male lead is. so....let's dig in! in honor of the loosely organized acts of the movie, i'll divide this review into some loosely organized acts as well. SPOILERS AHEAD –

I. BACKGROUND

probably one of the most bewildering facets of this movie and its writing is the lack of background. if you're going to have a strong female lead we're supposed to empathize with and understand, why does she exist in a vacuum? we know a handful of facts about cassie and what she does, but what seem to be the most essential elements are left out – i'm okay with glossing over holes here and there to uphold suspension of disbelief, but character/plot points that seem so obviously important are blatantly missing. who IS nina besides the impetus for cassie's vengeful odyssey? we briefly encounter her mom – the perpetually underutilized molly shannon – who seems to be aware of cassie's exploits, although it's never explained how. other than that, we never see nina's face or are given any opportunities to humanize her beyond a symbol. she is reduced solely to her assault. if anything, she seems to be a one-dimensional macguffin to perpetuate cassie's heroine– in this sense, we are experiencing this story through the lens of cassie, a character stricken by grief (and guilt) and not sexual trauma, which muddies this film's ultimate message even more.

i saw a review saying they want to ask emerald fennell what age she thinks med school students graduate at – the average age at graduation is 26, and the now-30-year-old cassie dropped out prior to graduation. are we to assume she’s been seeking out predators for upwards of 4 years? and that her parents don’t know, she’s never faced any repercussions, and even more, that she has yet to experience any sexual traumas of her own? for a movie that seems to pride itself both on coming from a female perspective and being ‘gritty’, it seems to assume the world is a relatively safe place for women as long as they’re not drunk. cassie, who is never seen wielding any sort of protection, repeatedly endangers herself – probably over hundreds of times by the look of her event journal – and seems to walk away unscathed every time. fennell said in an interview that "there's a reason cassie never uses weapons" and "there's a reason why women don't use weapons", however these are never explored – a running theme in the movie – and apparently the men in this universe don't use weapons either, which i'm sure made the writing process smoother.

the most bizarre part is what actually happens during these encounters. the only time we ever see one actually play out to the end is with mclovin (christopher mintz-plasse), when she cuts out the faux intoxication and basically…gives him a stern talking-to? i’m not saying a hard candy or audition style torture session or cursory castration would necessarily be better, but the whole concept of our badass ~girlboss~ just telling guys they’re being a creep doesn’t seem as earth-shattering as emerald fennell makes it out to be. apart from that, it implies that these assaults are contingent on intoxication, not with the men perpetuating them. does emerald fennell think that any woman who has ever come in contact with a predator would have gotten out unscathed if she simply…. said "stop it", got up, and walked away? once in their apartment…with no protection…? it’s the hard truth, and since this movie seems hellbent on bragging about the hard truths it uncovers (not that this movie presents anything that every woman on earth doesn’t already know) then why does it prop up all its predators as misguided horndogs who just need to be told off once? obviously, the ending negates this, but we’ll go into that….

II. GIRLBOSS

something i saw a lot of reviews mention was the idea of ‘girlbossing’ sexual assault, which i think is a perfect epithet for this kind of movie. there’s this new slick commercialization of sexual assault, flipped as neo-feminism, painted as revenge flicks, when they’re usually just hollow, unimaginative dramedies that express the same basic truths all women know, that provide some easily digestible message that isn’t too provacative. hot girl hunts down her r*pist. hot girl gets revenge. the ultimate takeaway from these movies is ‘sexual assault is bad’, and that kind of myopic thinking is even more evident in promising young woman. intriguing pathways that are less addressed in popular culture – legal proceedings dealing with r*pe cases, closure/forgiveness – trail off with no real critical thought, only being floated as punchlines.

the ‘girlbossing’ of sexual assault – making it marketable and ‘bad ass’ – makes it even more apparent why cassie would seek revenge as nina’s proxy. it’s easier to write. cassie’s place on the periphery of nina’s sexual assault makes it easier to write her as one-dimensional and non-complex. emerald fennell doesn’t have to write a character who personally experienced an assault, and therefore can skip over all the messy emotions and confusions that may get in the way of being an interminable vigilante. the only access we get to what nina may have felt and experienced is by association. there’s cassie, who is obviously overwhelmed with anger in her pursuit for revenge. and then there’s nina’s mom, who begs cassie to stop, desperate for closure.

on that note, some of the ‘girlbossing’ is just cruel. there’s an ambiguous scene in which cassie may or may not essentially sic a sexual predator on an erstwhile friend and previous doubter of nina’s assault, madison (alison brie), after getting her drunk. while the ambiguity is eventually cleared up, so is the intent – cassie absolutely intended to lead madison to believe she was sexually assaulted, and then ignore her while she tried to assemble the fragments of what may have been a horribly traumatic night. not only does this seem to be contrary to the entire message of the movie and its protagonist's thirst to avenge a victim, and not only is it just honestly repulsive, but it's another example of an interesting (and not hackneyed) potential discourse that was stifled in favor of ~girlbossing.~ female friends who deny or doubt accusations are a morally ambiguous and oft-unexplored factor in the social traumas that accompany assault. how complicit are they in abuse? what societal factors may be at play in their own minds and how they respond? this could have been a really interesting interaction, had it been handled with both more integrity and delicacy, but instead cassie (and fennell) choose to send madison spiraling on her own terrifying traumatic journey, relegating her to the same status as an abuser.

in another scene, cassie kidnaps a young girl, leaves her at a diner with no phone, and then proceeds to tell her mother (the dean at her former med school) that she left her in a dorm room with a bunch of drunk college boys. she stews in the mother’s discomfort, watching as her face twists in anguish, imagining the possible assault of her daughter, before finally laughing, telling her her real location, and calling her (the daughter) stupid. how this is supposed to feel like a victorious ‘gotcha’ moment, i’m not sure. why are women paying for men’s violence? who is this helping – why is it badass to perpetuate the cycle? i did read a review where fennell says that some of the things cassie does are “profoundly bad, which is often the case with people that are traumatized and…all that stuff [sic]” but the lack of depth in the character writing leads me to believe that very few people will glean that from this movie, and that the majority of the audience will assume it fell in line with her ‘badass’ character, which is exactly how it’s painted.

III. THE END

i’d posit michaela coel’s i may destroy you as both the best exploration of sexual assault and trauma on television and the antithesis to this movie. it’s a personal narrative, one that doesn’t exist for ‘gotchas’ or to be embossed with a glittery hyperfeminine soundtrack. we watch our lead heal messily, sometimes backwards, realistically. it feels raw, honest, and allows us to reckon with parts of ourselves that are so often eschewed in film/tv dealing with both trauma and being a modern woman. it asks questions, it doesn’t always provide answers, and it pushes the boundaries of the preestablished narrative so many of these films have. i genuinely think i would have liked promising young woman much better had i not watched i may destroy you first, most importantly because it is a THOUGHTFUL piece of work. it’s reflective and insightful, and it doesn’t present women with stagnant truths. and, while still being very personal, it manages to also feel universal and plural. michaela coel’s character, arabella, goes to some dark places – she’s not always likable. but that writing is intentional, and relative to arabella’s path to healing. in promising young woman, the ‘darkest’ parts of the film feel hollow at best and sensationalist at worst. it imparts obvious truths and then gives us nothing new to reflect on them. it turns sexual assault into a glorified game. and then, at the very end, our heroine is finally vindicated – by dying.

for a movie that briefly touches on how the judicial system is built to benefit men, especially straight white middle class cis men, i’m not sure how the ultimate victory in the movie is putting the main villain (who checks all those boxes) RIGHT back into that system. i’m also not sure why the music is victoriously swelling over shots of the police swarming the scene – because the police do so much for survivors! the thousands of untested r*pe kits decaying in evidence rooms across the country would be a good cut scene in that little montage. in the end, the judicial system and the police are championed as the ultimate heroes. sure, cassie led them there, but she had to die at the hands of a r*pist to do so. is that closure? if this film exists in our real world – which i’m not totally sure it does – there’s a good chance al (nina’s r*pist and cassie’s killer) will have a pretty badass legal team on his hands.

emerald fennell said in an interview that she writes unanalytically, and that she writes the entire movie in her head before putting anything on paper. i’m not surprised. it feels uncollaborative, disjointed, and even a little cold. i saw a review that said “the people who didn’t like the ending are cowards.” am i a coward because i’d rather see a woman get justice that doesn’t involve a fully-formed frat boy kicking her dead, mottled hand into a fire built off of her other decomposing limbs?

anyways, carey mulligan: your back must be in pieces after carrying this 5000 pound movie on it. i hope you get ten thousand oscars. love you!

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