MOVIE OF THE WEEK January 1, 2021: PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN

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Smart, bold, and refreshingly original, Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman marks the feature directorial debut of a major filmmaking talent. Fennell’s confident, fearless direction and script — along with a confident, outstanding performance by star Carey Mulligan — give this darkly comic and deeply satisfying thriller an impact that you won’t soon forget.
 
Mulligan stars as Cassie, a med school dropout on the verge of turning 30 who now works at a coffee shop and still lives with her parents (Jennifer Coolidge and Clancy Brown). But Cassie isn’t drifting along without purpose: She has a very specific agenda. Most nights, she goes to a bar or club and pretends to be falling-down drunk; when a “nice guy” inevitably offers to help her get home but then almost as inevitably tries to take advantage of her inebriated state, she “sobers up” quickly and puts the fear of God into him.

What drives Cassie’s one-woman crusade against would-be assaulters? It ties into the reason she never finished medical school and involves her lifelong best friend, Nina. To say much more would be to undermine the power of Fennell’s carefully constructed plot and its many twists, but suffice it to say that Cassie is fueled by a deep, powerful desire for revenge. Part of her longs to lead a more ordinary life — personified in the form of former med school classmate Ryan (Bo Burnham), who’s interested in pursuing a relationship with her — but can that part win out over her thirst for justice? And if it can, should it?

Fennell is an experienced actress who, tellingly, also wrote six episodes of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s outstanding series Killing Eve. Like that show, Promising Young Woman upends viewers’ expectations for stories about women. Which is an excellent thing: More rules like those need to be broken, in movies and in the world as a whole, on a regular basis. — Betsy Bozdech

Team #MOTW’s comments:

Pam Grady: Carey Mulligan delivers one of her finest performances in this black comic tour de force written and directed by actress (The Crown‘s Camilla Parker Bowles) and Killing Eve scribe Emerald Fennell. A former medical student living with her parents and working as a barista, Mulligan’s Cassandra is a whirling dervish of rage concealed by her ultra-feminine clothes and candy-colored manicure. But there is no masking her sarcasm or the vengeance she delivers under the cloak of night to a certain kind of male in her eagerness to redress an injustice from her university years. A new romance with former classmate Ryan (Bo Burnham) is both a balm and an irritant to old wounds. Can Cassandra put the past behind her or will her quest for retribution continue? Make no mistake: Mulligan is basically taking the part of Charles Bronson in a 21st-century Death Wish. Fennell and her star have created an indelible character whose behavior is sometimes hilarious and always unsettling. Cassandra’s crusade is righteous but she is also a sociopath who transforms revenge into a dangerous game. Promising Young Woman is a powerful study of a damaged psyche – and the steps that led her there.

Leslie Combemale Promising Young Woman turbocharges the female gaze in a way that will make some traditional film fans and the white male execs who make mainstream Hollywood fare for them very uncomfortable. Too bad. Lots of female filmgoers are desperate for more films that examine the experience of women in a world where permission for rage, complexity, and antiheroic action is given almost exclusively to men. However this film makes you feel, finally, that Mulligan’s Cassie projects all that rage and complexity onto the big screen. Read full review.

Jennifer Merin Promising Young Woman is a gutsy and beautifully-crafted first feature from actress-turned-writer/director Emerald Fennell. The film stars Carey Mulligan as Cassie, a med school drop out who is determined to punish men who sexually abuse women who’ve had too much to drink — and especially the gang of male med school peers who raped her best friend. Lots of clever and believable plot twists keep you thoroughly engaged and Carey Mulligan rules.

Susan Wloszczyna: Thanks to the wickedly fertile mind of British actress, author, screenwriter and debut director Emerald Fennell who is behind Promising Young Woman, Mulligan gets to assuredly inhabit a character that was once was a sexy staple of such ‘40s classic movies as The Maltese Falcon and Double Indemnity while putting a #MeToo spin on the genre as her scarred character gets to right a terrible wrong with a vengeance that comes from a place of grief and sorrow but is balanced by a darkly comic vicious bite. Read full review.

MaryAnn Johanson I feel like there’s one really important takeaway from Promising Young Woman, and it’s this: Imagine if men faced any serious consequences for the way they treat women. I know, I know: We women, when we rage about how men treat women, are supposed to qualify our anger, be sure to let everyone know that, yes, we get it. #NotAllMen. Even now, as we are coming to understand how many women are harassed and abused and violated — and worse — by men, we are still molded to protect men’s perceptions of themselves as good and decent people over women’s realities, women’s lived experiences that contradict that. But imagine this, too: Imagine if the world understood precisely how full of fury so many women are at the ways we are treated by men, so often not just with full legal impunity but with outright cultural approval. This movie feels like a beginning of broaching that understanding. I found myself shouting at the screen, just all on my own, watching this on my laptop, and I would love to see this again in a cinema with a large crowd of women. It would be incendiary. It might almost be revolutionary. Maybe we can make that happen anyway…

Loren King Promising Young Woman means to push buttons and provoke reactions. It’s a scorching indictment wrapped in a sophisticated revenge fantasy. Writer/director Emerald Fennell manages a pitch black comedy that’s visually and tonally arresting, with a flamethrower of a script. Read full review.

Nell Minow: Promising Young Woman is a thought experiment made visceral and unignorable. The title is an ironic reference to the “boys will be boys” mindset that leads judges and communities to forgive young men for assaults on women who were too impaired to consent or object. As Cassie forces the other characters to understand and acknowledge the damage they have inflicted, writer/director Emerald Fennell removes the ironic quote marks from the title to show us that young women, given a chance to tell their stories, will more than achieve their promise.

Marina Antunes Carey Mulligan is an avenging angel in Emerald Fennell’s sometimes mysterious, always unapologetic revenge drama Promising Young Woman, which tackles concepts of identity, PTSD, revenge, and self reflection with a spectacularly nuanced and mesmerizing performance from Mulligan.

Kathia Woods Promising Young Woman puts the woman in control. We are examining not only the perpetrators but also the enablers. These are the themes explored in this film. Cassie, played outstandingly by Carrie Mulligan, wasn’t the victim, but she saw firsthand how the system favored those with power. She decided to even the odds. The downfall is that the event paralyzed her from living her life. We, the audience, can’t decide if we should cheer for her or become horrified. Read full review

Sandie Angulo Chen: Writer-director Emerald Fennell’s debut feature film Promising Young Woman is a daring takedown of rape culture starring the incomparable Carey Mulligan. It’s not an easy film to watch, even though it’s full of moments of humor and wit. As the aptly named Cassandra, she pretends to be a messy drunk in the view of men, some of them seemingly decent and kind men, who nonetheless take advantage — until she reveals herself to be stone-cold sober and ready to put the men in their place. Fennell may be best known to American audiences as Camilla Parker Bowes in The Crown, but she’s also the Emmy-nominated showrunner of the second season of Killing Eve, and her sharp mind and social commentary is fully on display in her fantastic, feminist tale.

Liz Whittemore Overflowing with the sharpest of twists and turns, Promising Young Woman is every survivor’s fantasy come to life. Balancing on a highwire of wit and utter darkness, Carey Mulligan gives the performance of her career. The writing and directing from Emerald Fennel is a thing to behold. I welcome the conversation that already swirls around this film because as a survivor myself, anyone feeling defensive needs to pay more attention. My heart raced listening to the slick and intentional dialogue. It will take your breath away. The Kill Bill storytelling structure is undeniable and incredibly satisfying. The title alone screams volumes. Made even more powerful with it’s masterfully chosen soundtrack, Promising Young Woman will become a feminist anthem we didn’t even know we could have. It’s nothing short of spectacular.

Cate Marquis Carey Mulligan gives a searing performance as a woman who prowls nightspots turning the tables on would-be rapists who prey on drunken women, in writer/director Emerald Fennell’s excellent feminist revenge thriller Promising Young Woman. Once a “promising young woman” who dropped out of med school after her best friend and fellow med student was raped, Cassandra (Carey Mulligan) is now out for vengeance. Filled with smart, pointed dialog and blending satire, thriller and drama, then topped with a brave and sterling performance by Mulligan, this electrifying thriller takes on rape culture like no other film before.

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AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Sandie Angulo Chen, Marina Antunes, Nikki Baughan, Betsy Bozdech, Leslie Combemale, Pam Grady, MaryAnn Johanson, Loren King, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Liz Whittemore, Susan Wloszczyna, Kathia Woods

Previous #MOTW Selections

Other Movies Opening This Week

Edited by Jennifer Merin

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Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin is the Film Critic for Womens eNews and contributes the CINEMA CITIZEN blog for and is managing editor for Women on Film, the online magazine of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, of which she is President. She has served as a regular critic and film-related interviewer for The New York Press and About.com. She has written about entertainment for USA Today, The L.A. Times, US Magazine, Ms. Magazine, Endless Vacation Magazine, Daily News, New York Post, SoHo News and other publications. After receiving her MFA from Tisch School of the Arts (Grad Acting), Jennifer performed at the O'Neill Theater Center's Playwrights Conference, Long Wharf Theater, American Place Theatre and LaMamma, where she worked with renown Japanese director, Shuji Terayama. She subsequently joined Terayama's theater company in Tokyo, where she also acted in films. Her journalism career began when she was asked to write about Terayama for The Drama Review. She became a regular contributor to the Christian Science Monitor after writing an article about Marketta Kimbrell's Theater For The Forgotten, with which she was performing at the time. She was an O'Neill Theater Center National Critics' Institute Fellow, and then became the institute's Coordinator. While teaching at the Universities of Wisconsin and Rhode Island, she wrote "A Directory of Festivals of Theater, Dance and Folklore Around the World," published by the International Theater Institute. Denmark's Odin Teatret's director, Eugenio Barba, wrote his manifesto in the form of a letter to "Dear Jennifer Merin," which has been published around the world, in languages as diverse as Farsi and Romanian. Jennifer's culturally-oriented travel column began in the LA Times in 1984, then moved to The Associated Press, LA Times Syndicate, Tribune Media, Creators Syndicate and (currently) Arcamax Publishing. She's been news writer/editor for ABC Radio Networks, on-air reporter for NBC, CBS Radio and, currently, for Westwood One's America In the Morning. She is also a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. For her AWFJ archive, type "Jennifer Merin" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).