Synopsis: Nothing in Cassie’s life is what it appears to be — she’s wickedly smart, tantalizingly cunning, and she’s living a secret double life by night. Now, an unexpected encounter is about to give Cassie a chance to right the wrongs from the past.
Stars: Carey Mulligan, Bo Burnham, Laverne Cox, Alison Brie, Connie Britton, Jennifer Coolidge, Max Greenfield, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Chris Lowell, Sam Richardson, Molly Shannon, Clancy Brown
Director: Emerald Fennell
Running Length: 113 minutes
TMMM Score: (10/10)
Review: Allow me to be totally shallow for one brief review and talk about the impact of COVID on theaters, ok? It’s completely inconsequential in the big picture, I know…but I have a point to make, I do! Of the numerous things the pandemic has robbed movie goers of over the last year, the one I’m starting to miss the most is that word of mouth buzz that spreads like a low hum and reaches new places. Stretching beyond the periphery of the regular film fan and past the casually interested film movie goer, there’s always a few movies each year that permeate the conversation in surprising ways and that’s just not a phenomenon that can occur when only a handful of theaters are open for limited business and most films are watched online. Anticipated movies arrive and are forgotten, sucked into the vortex of the 24 hours news cycle.
It makes me sad to think about the watercooler conversations that would have been had over a razor-sharp film like Promising Young Woman and the way it obliterates your expectations at every turn. The more you think you know about the characters, the further away from the truth you get and that’s due in no small part to the dynamic pairing of writer/director Emerald Fennell and star Carey Mulligan. Together, the two women have delivered the best film of 2020 (in my opinion), one that holds its unblinking focus dead ahead on a prize some may feel isn’t worth winning. It’s going to frustrate a lot of people as much as it electrifies others but there’s no denying it’s the most ‘alive’ film you’re going to see in quite some time. Entertaining is probably too genial a word for it…it’s a Movie with a capital “M” and it gives you a full course meal to digest.
When we first see Cassandra Thomas (Mulligan, Far From the Madding Crowd), she’s in no condition to be out alone at a bar at last call. Barely able to stand and definitely not in a position to give consent to anything other than a cab ride directly home, she’s instead offered a ride by a guy (Adam Brody, Ready or Not) who seems like a decent fellow at first…until he decides a detour to his apartment for a nightcap might be a better option. It’s not. What transpires between them in his bachelor pad is not going to be spoiled by me but he’s not the first man to pick up Cassie Thomas and regret it the next morning. She’s gotten good at this. He’s another name in a well-worn black book she keeps. And there will be more.
By day, Cassie works at a coffee shop alongside Gail (Laverne Cox, Bad Hair), having dropped out of medical school for reasons that will become clear as the movie progresses. Living with her parents (Jennifer Coolidge, Like a Boss and Clancy Brown, Lady and the Tramp) who seem to keep their daughter at arm’s length by her request, Cassie’s life consists of working by day and roaming the bars at night. These worlds co-mingle in surprising ways when she has a chance encounter with a former med school classmate Ryan (Bo Burnham, The Big Sick) who asks her out. Their date doesn’t just create a spark between them but adds fuel to a long-burning ember of revenge which comes alive again, setting Cassie on a wickedly twisted path forward in order to make good on a promise she made in the past.
To say more of the plot or what’s motivating Cassie would be to give away too much of Fennell’s fantastic first feature film, a boffo debut being made after cutting her teeth on high-profile work as the showrunner and writer of the second season of Killing Eve. I wasn’t crazy about where that show went with its sophomore season, but Fennell nails her outing on the big screen, creating a project with the darkest of corners to venture into and making even the sunnier stretches have an ominous haze hanging over it. Take for example Cassie’s lunch reunion with the HBIC of her college class (Alison Brie, The Rental) that’s now a suburban mom and watch how it turns into a potentially dangerous encounter for one of them after several glasses of wine. That’s nothing compared to what Cassie dreams up for a former teacher (Connie Britton, American Ultra) that’s now the Dean of her almost alma-mater. You don’t generally see women taking this kind of advantage of other women in film, but Fennell doesn’t let anyone off the hook for wrongdoing…and trust when I say anyone.
With several Britney Spears songs included in the soundtrack and one chilling all-string version of ‘Toxic’ that sets-up the blistering final act, it’s no coincidence Mulligan has been styled to look like a doppelgänger of the singer. There are times when she looks so much like the one-time pop princess that I actually had to close my eyes and shake my head to remind myself it wasn’t her. The resemblance is just…uncanny. Her commitment to the role is extraordinary and she’s tasked with taking a woman with complications that could be seen as the problem and making the audience root for her. If this was told from a different perspective, her character would be seen as the villain, but it never comes across that way in this narrative and it’s because Mulligan keeps Cassie understandably aggravated at her inability to effect change in the usual way…so she resorts to her own methods to yield the desired results. In some bizarre way, it makes her more relatable than most of the “good” people in films. It’s a performance that has layers you can peel back for days, one of the absolute best of 2020.
The supporting cast that’s featured in roles that range from cameos to vital parts of the plot are also 10s across the board, from Burnham’s mild-mannered and lovable potential mate to Molly Shannon (Hotel Transylvania 2) in a brief turn as the mother of someone that plays a key part in Cassie’s plan. Even the men that show up as the ones we’re supposed to loathe (I’m not going to name them just in case it goes into spoiler territory) are well done for their carefully balanced methods of keeping them arch enough to be a bit cartoon-ish but also realistic enough to fear them should they ever get the upper hand. There’s not a bad apple in the bunch but all are playing fourth fiddle to Mulligan who could probably play the entire orchestra on her own without breaking a sweat.
It’s been two months now since I’ve seen Promising Young Woman and it made the #1 spot on my Best of 2020 list based on it’s staying power for ping-ponging around in my head all this time. It’s such a brilliantly made film that breaks down some key barriers between men and women and the lengths people will go to get what they want. What some people will shrug off in a man’s actions, they object to in a woman’s and vice versa. Fennell takes aim at these antiquated notions and levels the playing field with a cautionary tale of the true price of revenge. Don’t you dare pass it up.