'Promising Young Woman' Exposes Toxic Masculinity and Those Complicit in It

Directed by Emerald Fennell

Starring Carey Mulligan, Bo Burnham, and Laverne Cox, Adam Brody, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Connie Britton

BY Paul DikaPublished Jan 8, 2021

The last two years have been quite the showcase for Emerald Fennell. In addition to writing six of the eight episodes for Killing Eve's second season, she was cast as Camilla Parker Bowles in The Crown, the third part of the love triangle between Prince Charles and Princess Diana in the show's most recent seasons. With her feature-length directorial debut, Promising Young Woman, Fennell has proven herself to be as talented a director as she is a writer and actor.

"You know, they put themselves in danger, girls like that. If she's not careful, someone's going to take advantage. Especially with the kind of guys in this club," says one of the guys in the club.

He's talking about Cassie (Carey Mulligan), who's almost 30, still living at home and working at a coffee shop since dropping out of medical school a few years earlier due to a tragedy involving her best friend, Nina. Unbeknownst to the group of guys judging her, each week she goes to a bar and pretends to be blackout drunk. Inevitably, each time she does this, there is a 'nice guy' who emerges and tries to 'help' her, while actually trying to take advantage of her. Cassie always gives the man the opportunity to do the right thing, but he never does. That's when Cassie teaches them a lesson in her own unique way. Each time she does, she makes a tally in her journal; the journal is almost full already.

Between balancing her work and weekly encounters, Cassie starts seeing Ryan (Bo Burnham), a former classmate of hers from her med school days. As their relationship begins to develop, Cassie starts to question where she's at in her life, and whether or not she should commit more seriously to this man who has set himself apart from all the other creeps she's come across.

Fennell has created a compelling film (billed as a 'dark-comedy revenge thriller') that exposes all the rhetoric and clichés sexual assault survivors are confronted with when telling their story. In Promising Young Woman, the victim is never the victim; rather, it is the perpetrators who feel they are the most vulnerable, the ones with the most to lose. The men she traps, and those she questions about her friend's tragedy, all come up with petty excuses that attempt to justify and protect their actions while dismissing the claims of the actual victim. "I'm a good guy," "This will ruin my career" — they can't be in the wrong because they're good guys, and their intentions are just misunderstood.

Cassie finds that lack of accountability extends beyond men to people who are in positions of power to help survivors but choose not to. As Cassie reconnects with people involved in Nina's incident, Fennell examines the complicity of those who choose to not believe survivors. When speaking with Cassie's former dean (Connie Britton) about the Nina incident, she also has a laundry list of unacceptable excuses: "We get accusations like this all the time, one or two a week," "What would you have me do? Ruin a young man's life every time we get an accusation like this?"

Fennell surrounds Cassie with characters who fail to hold themselves and others accountable. Walker insists she investigated and did everything she could, but did she? Every time she confronts an individual with the opportunity to own up to their actions (or lack thereof), they don't. They selfishly choose ignorance instead of facing the painful and uncomfortable reality.

There is an excellent bit of casting that causes the audience to pause and reflect on how they make snap judgements about these 'good guys.'' Adam Brody and Christopher Mintz-Plasse both play characters who fail Cassie's drunk-girl-at-the-bar test, while having every opportunity to do the right thing. Brody (known by most for his role as Seth Cohen in The O.C.), and Mintz-Plasse (a.k.a. McLovin from Superbad) are both tied to these non-threatening and unassuming characters.

The choice to cast these two makes for a compelling juxtaposition. Their faces are familiar and safe, but while the characters may feel like the former, they certainly are not the latter. Cassie is constantly surrounded by wolves in sheep's clothing, which demonstrates Fennell's understanding of the dangerous reality that women face in their day-to-day lives.

Carey Mulligan also serves as an outstanding choice to play the lead. Over her career, she's played a number of soft-spoken and timid characters in films like Shame, Drive and An Education. Here, she is anything but that. Cassie is a character who doesn't mince words, and will take every opportunity to expose bad people for who they really are. Mulligan emphatically embraces the role and elevates the character who isn't afraid to say enough is enough.

If the #MeToo movement is going to maintain the momentum and attention it needs and deserves to make a difference, Fennell identifies that the problem lies with those who have failed to understand the movement itself: the men who victimize themselves and fail to take accountability, and the people in positions of power who fail to take action because of the possible repercussions. Promising Young Woman hits the nail on the head in a compelling way, making it one of the better movies of the year.

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