The last twelve months has perhaps the best ever year for films from female film makers-at least
in the USA. The year brought critically lionized releases such as Kelly Reichardt’s
(my favorite in the bunch), Robin Wright’s Land, Chloe
Regina King’s One Night in Miami, Eliza Hitmman’s
Sometimes Always, Miranda July’s Kajillionaire, Kitty Green’s The Assistant as
well as Emerald Fennel’s Promising Young Woman.
For this first time ever two of this year’s best director Oscar nominations went
to women for the makers of Nomadland and Promising Young Woman. This was not a
mere PC move from the Oscars, and many of the before mentioned films were strong
enough to merit multiple nominations.
Now one of the boldest, brightest, and best of these films, Promising Young
Woman which was originally released on big screens in late December is finally
widely available as a DVD rental (it just arrived on Red Box this month and it
is on Amazon Prime Video).
Promising Young Woman is a morbidly fascinating and wickedly funny feminist
black comedy. It is set up like an artier #MeToo update of a female centered
‘70s vigilante exploitation flick (like Ms. 45 or I Spit on Your Grave and Last
House on the Left although this does not completely follow the pattern) and
concerns a woman who was traumatized by her friend’s rape who tries weed out and
punish potential or actual rapists.
The main character does not use violence but defeats the men psychologically or
shames them, so the film masterfully manages to avoid genre clichés, subvert
expectations, and it denies audience members their expected catharsis. The film is nearly as intense and riveting as violent female centered thrillers
like Monster or Pretty Poison, but it only contains a fraction of the violence
of those films. Despite the MPAA statement, the rape is never even shown in the
The movie has received almost universal rapturously positive reviews as well as
multiple award nominations. It made many critics’ top 10 lists (Including the
National Board of Review’s top 10 list) and it's received five Oscar nominations
(including best picture, best actress, best original screenplay, and best
director). Although I don’t quite think it is the best film of the year, most of
the film’s great acclaim is richly deserved.
The director, Emerald Fennel is a classically trained actress who is probably
best known for her Emmy winning continuing role in The Crown (one of my favorite
Netflix series). She has a sure hand behind the camera and her feature film
directing debut, Promising Young Woman is remarkably confident and consistently
The film features a spell binding lead performance by British actress, Carey
Mulligan playing the psychologically troubled, Cassie. Mulligan did several film
versions of classic literary works such as Pride and Prejudice and The Great
Gatsby (although I was not crazy about her portrayal of Daisy) as well as An
Education, but this is probably her tour de force performance and best film. If
anyone associated with the film gets an Oscar, I think it will be her.
Mulligan is Cassie, the promising young woman in the title, who seemed to
squander all her potential. She gave up a promising career path in medical
school , and currently lives with her parents and works in a coffee shop. Her
parents don’t know what is wrong with her, but they see she is deeply troubled,
and something damaged her severely. She has no ambition, boyfriend, or higher
job prospects Also she comes home very late night after night and the parents
don’t quite buy her explanations. Her mom seems doubtful and disbelieving when
she comments “you sure seem to do lots of inventory.”
When Cassie goes out hunting rapists, she goes to sleazy bars and wears gaudy
flower prints and shows off her braids so that she looks like a young, and
innocent girlish woman in the flower of her youth and she acts tipsy or drugged
out. The only thing that gives her away is that she is occasionally shot in
sinister and lurid lighting which suggests that she is not what she claims to
be, and it momentarily gives her a femme fatale like appearance. The film was
produced by Margot Robbie, and with the way she can seem simultaneously girlish
and dangerously unstable, I could easily see the former Harley Quinn in this
role (but I don’t think she would have necessarily done a better job).
Alison Brie is also terrific as Madison, a suspicious old friend of hers who
tries to figure out what she is up to, and she gradually begins to put two and
two together. It is unclear whether she will serve as an ally or foe. Brie was
wonderful in the sitcom; Community and she was a regular in Mad Men, but she did
some of her best work playing a reluctant and unlikely TV wrestler in the
Netflix series: GLOW.
The third major character, is Ryan (Bo Burham), is a seemingly nice guy who knew
Cassie in medical school. The two accidentally re-encounter each other and start
hanging out. Initially he doesn’t seem to be a bad catch/romantic choice and her
parents are delighted when they find out that they are spending time together.
At first, Cassie seems to be just using him to get info on the guy who raped her
friend, but she seems to actually throw down a few of her barriers around him
after a while. They probably hope that his influence might cause her to abandon
whatever she is doing and settle down. But the audience who has more information
about Cassie’s past knows that this will probably not end well.
The film does not limit its blame allocating to males and in one of the film’s
most riveting scenes Cassie confronts one of the female school officials who
helped cover up her friend’s rape. It’s not just the male rapists, but all of us
and society as a whole that allows this kind of thing to keep going on.
Audience members expecting light entertainment and a pleasant diversion may not
appreciate this film (I suspect many of the Comicsgate will positively hate it).
But most sophisticated film viewers who desire some dramatic intensity and a
film that bravely takes on current social issues should find it rewarding, and
they should run not walk to their local DVD rental place or stream it when they