PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN movie poster | ©2020 Focus Features

PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN movie poster | ©2020 Focus Features

Rating: R
Stars: Carey Mulligan, Bo Burnham, Alison Brie, Clancy Brown, Jennifer Coolidge, Laverne Cox, Chris Lowell, Molly Shannon, Connie Britton, Adam Brody, Max Greenfield, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Steve Monroe, Samuel Richardson, Alfred Molina
Writer: Emerald Fennell
Director: Emerald Fennell
Distributor: Focus Features
Release Date: December 25, 2020

PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN starts out seeming, well, promising. Cassie (Carey Mulligan) is just turning thirty, still lives with her parents (Clancy Brown and Jennifer Coolidge), and works a low-paying job at a coffee shop. She likes her co-workers, including supervisor Gail (Laverne Cox), and won’t accept a promotion when one is offered.

Turns out this low-key lifestyle is in support of Cassie’s true calling. By night, she goes to bars and pretends to be drunk, in order to entrap men who take her home, thinking she’s too out of it to withhold consent. When the guys start to make moves, Cassie promptly snaps awake. The men mostly react with excuses and embarrassment.

Cassie dropped out of med school years ago. When classmate Ryan (Bo Burnham), now a pediatric specialist, walks into the coffee shop, old sparks are rekindled. More than that, Cassie starts revisiting the people who caused her to leave the institution, with some innovative notions of vengeance.

PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN isn’t a typical rape revenge movie – there’s no blood and a lot of dark humor. Director/writer Emerald Fennell invests it with a lot of wit and twists.

For a while, the black comedy works. But as the film becomes more and more serious, it also relies on a few too many coincidences, along with some very on-the-nose observations. The result is something that feels too didactic to be this farfetched, and too farfetched to be this didactic.

Additionally, there’s some weird coyness. If you’re going to show Cassie walking away with what looks like someone else’s blood on her from one of her nocturnal adventures in lesson-teaching, it might be helpful to show what happened.

Back in 2016, there was an unfortunately little-seen ten-episode TV series, SWEET/VICIOUS, which depicted two young women, one a rape victim and one not, who joined forces to beat up and humiliate campus rapists. Suspension of disbelief was even more required with this, but somehow it wound up with a much better balance of message and execution than PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN provides.

Mulligan is excellent as Cassie, going through every emotion in the book and then some with total conviction. Burnham is very good as the charming Ryan, and the rest of the cast is strong as well.

The most intriguing aspect of PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN is perhaps its examination not of rapists, but of their enablers. Some sympathize, and some are simply people who can’t see their way past their personal need not to cause trouble.

But there’s a very troubling message in PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN that can’t be discussed without huge spoilers. Apparently, this isn’t as evident to everybody as it was to this reviewer. This reviewer has had now two discussions with ardent admirers of the film, both of whom said they saw the objectionable aspect when it was pointed out, but hadn’t previously considered it.

There is a needle to be threaded in discussing the lasting damage and trauma of sexual assault. PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN attempts this in a way that ultimately may infuriate at least some rape survivors.

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