When 2020 began, the entire year had a difficult question to follow up. The question was: what film could possibly come close to the shock value, emotional highs and lows, social commentary, and creative genre-bending of the consensus top film of 2019, Bong Joon-ho's masterpiece "Parasite"? It took until the very end of the year for most people to find out, but after a rousing Sundance premiere, it had been clear that Emerald Fennell's fiery feature directorial debut "Promising Young Woman" was a film of that potential. However, after the COVID-19 pandemic hit and theaters were closed, the film's original April 2020 release date was pushed all the way back to Christmas Day. Thus, the delay built more anticipation for the film, especially after the provocative trailer was released. What was this film going to be? A classic revenge thriller? A feminist slasher? A pitch-black romantic comedy? The genius of it all is, "Promising Young Woman" is basically none of these. It stands out on its own as a singular film that cannot be put into a box.
Without revealing too much detail, the premise of the film is that 30 year old Cassandra "Cassie" Thomas (played extraordinarily by Academy Award nominee Carey Mulligan) is a medical school dropout who leads a double life to cope with the latent trauma that caused her to leave. By day, she is a seemingly harmless but unsatisfied cafe worker who lives at home with her parents (Clancy Brown and Jennifer Coolidge) and has a knack for quipping it up with her boss Gail (Laverne Cox). By night, she is an avid club-goer who feigns drunk and causes supposed "nice guys" to reveal their true nature. However, Cassie's life changes when she reunites with former classmate Ryan (Bo Burnham) and she is forced to decide which path she prefers as she falls for him. The story from this point forward takes many unexpected turns, as Cassie learns more about her traumatic past and continues to build her relationship with Ryan.
The film never truly shakes off an uneasy undertone, and it uses this to its advantage throughout. Fennell's script and direction use foreshadowing to point to where the story may head, but many scenes are subverted from their expected outcomes. The character of Cassie is a true feat of screenwriting and performance, as Fennell's slow and deliberate revelations and Mulligan's tortured, funny, and manic performance combine to make her mysterious, sympathetic, and completely compelling. Additionally, the casting of comic actors known for their deadpan deliveries like Bo Burnham, Jennifer Coolidge, and Laverne Cox adds to the darkly humorous undertones of many scenes. Burnham is the other standout among the ensemble, as his public persona adds to the charm of his character.
The craft of the film also undeniably adds to its atmosphere. The music choices throughout the film are impeccable, with a carefully curated selection of female indie pop and subversive uses of songs by Paris Hilton and Britney Spears. The colors throughout the film pop, with plenty of pastel pinks, blues, and yellows that give it a candy coated and pulpy quality of heightened reality. Cassie's makeup, hair, and outfits throughout the film also are good story indicators. During her daytime/casual scenes, she is very modest, wearing little makeup, showing little to no skin, and letting her hair down. During her nighttime/vengeful scenes, she is wearing messy makeup, sexually provocative outfits, and pulls her hair back or wears a wig. This shows the two sides to her coping mechanisms for trauma, one that causes her to blend into the scenery, and another that causes her to fight back against the men who may have caused her that trauma. The editing of the film is also a highlight, with no scene overstaying its welcome, and no moment being put to waste. The film has a propulsive pace that only lets up when a new detail from Cassie's past is learned and tension is built. All of this adds up to a directorial debut from Fennell that could be called many things. The style and homage that shined through the most was a Hitchcockian attention to detail and plot, but with a feminine twist. All in all, Emerald Fennell has clearly gone from an acclaimed character actress, writer, and showrunner to a clearly singular new filmmaker that is one to watch for years to come.
The major talking point of "Promising Young Woman", however, is its ending. For many people, the ending will make or break the film as a whole. It is raw, unflinching, and achingly real at first, and darkly funny and provocative by the time it concludes. What cannot be denied is the clear social commentary that the film makes on trauma, grief, and who's voices/privileges are heard above others. One's interpretation may vary on whether or not the message is successfully portrayed in the end, but the debate and discussion surrounding this film will cause it to live on and be studied for years to come.
In the end, no film from 2020 has come close to the level of thrills, laughs, cringes, and provocative conversations as "Promising Young Woman" has. It is a film that will be rewatched, studied, and emulated for years to come as more and more people discover it. Hopefully, Emerald Fennell will inspire more women to create powerfully original feminist films of their own in the future, and this film is the start of a new wave.