“I am a nice guy!” pleads Christopher Mintz-Plasse’s not-so-nice Neil in writer/director Emerald Fennell’s blistering feature debut. He’s one of the dozens of men to have failed Cassandra Thomas’ test. Played by a rarely better Carey Mulligan, Cassie spends her evenings in bars, feigning legless inebriation until a ‘nice guy’ picks her up. How far they go is up to them, but consent is never given and if they ignore Cassandra’s repeated protests… well, that would be telling.
Billed as a “delicious new take on revenge”, the first thing to note about Promising Young Woman is it probably isn’t the film you think it is. Look past the cupcake-colored aesthetics, darkly comic tone and Cassandra’s provocative MO, and you’ll find a film that’s rooted in the repercussions of trauma – both the act itself and the scars that refuse to fade in the absence of justice. “We get accusations like this all the time,” says the college dean who, a few years prior, covered up a crime that drives Cassie’s every action. “I have to give him the benefit of the doubt.” It’s a chilling line, but one that gets to the heart of what makes Fennell’s script so cutting.
In parallel with Cassie’s ongoing mission, the thirtysomething med-school dropout strikes up a relationship with former classmate Ryan (Bo Burnham). As she begins to drop her defenses after years of singledom, the two share a sincere connection, bonding over awkward dinners with Cassie’s loving parents (Clancy Brown, Jennifer Coolidge) and impromptu dance parties in the local pharmacy. In a different film, their chemistry would make for a charming rom-com. Here, it opens up questions about whether Cassie can truly reconcile her need for vengeance with a life of her own.
Mulligan – a consistently captivating screen presence since she shot to attention in Lone Scherfig’s An Education – is operating on another level here. Intimidating and vulnerable, confident and in crisis; Cassie’s contradictions are what make her such a compelling character. She isn’t The Bride or even Lisbeth Salander, and wrestles with the consequences of her actions, despite her righteous intentions. Because she’s ultimately a good person, Cassie so often is denied the catharsis she desperately craves, and so too is the audience, Fennell challenging genre expectations at every turn.
Striking styling and a distractingly cool soundtrack (that “Toxic” remix from the trailer is the tip of the iceberg) can get in the way of the serious story Fennell is telling. Meanwhile, the ending is destined to be one of the year’s most divisive, taking a huge swing and not quite hitting the mark. But on this evidence, Fennell is a promising young filmmaker indeed.