Promising Young Woman (Review): No Consent, No Excuses

Predators become prey in Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman: a bold story of one woman’s quest to avenge acts of sexual assault. Wanna see some real scumbags get slapped upside the head with some karma? So did I! Read on to see what I thought…

Promising Young Woman is simultaneously a revenge thriller and a romance. Cassandra Thomas has just hit 30, she still lives with her parents, and she spends most nights hanging out at bars. She has no friends, and the few people who do know her think she’s wasting her life away… But is she? In actuality, Cassandra is on a righteous mission: to avenge the sexual assault of her friend by psychologically terrifying random predators.

How does she do this, might you ask? Well, usually by pretending to be extremely drunk in a public setting. Inevitably, some “nice guy” offers to “help” her out, or take her home, and Cassie goes along with them. Oftentimes they’ll try to take advantage of her when she’s “passed out” or generally too inebriated to consent. It’s at this point Cassie reveals herself as sober and makes these guys feel as pathetic as she sees them.

The opening montage of this movie hilariously moves across a nightclub and objectifies some average-looking dudes while they dance and drink. This sequence flips the “Male Gaze” on its head and shows male viewers how awkward these types of shots are when we’re forced to look at ourselves instead of beautiful women. Coming as somebody who understood the Male Gaze concept more academically than emotionally, this sequence made me think “Oh! So that’s what that feels like…” So Promising Young Woman gained my respect early for communicating a popular film theory through clear and effective visual satire.

That said: my feelings were decidedly more mixed for the rest of scene one. The first characters introduced were over-the-top jerks who felt more like stereotypes than actual men. But I’m a boring square who doesn’t frequent nightclubs, so what do I know about the types who hang out there? I’m sure plenty of real men like this do exist– just none I’ve met.

So many men (like the aforementioned characters) claim they’re “nice guys” before revealing themselves as sleazeballs. It happens a lot both in fiction and in life and it’s awful. But one element of the movie I questioned: couldn’t there have been any legitimately decent man Cassie meets during her mission? At any point? Maybe Emerald Fennell (the writer/ director of the film) didn’t have time for it. I just would have liked to see one guy at that club legitimately trying to help Cassie– if only to switch things up a little and keep the audience guessing. That part of me which has faith in humanity has to believe that less than 100% of men at these places suck…

This lack of decent behaviour brings me to a larger problem with PYW: while many characters (both main and supporting) were charming, most of them were hard to like/ root for. Cassie was the most likable character because she gave bad people a taste of their own medicine (and that’s endearing). But she also comes off as an unhinged person who spends her free time psychologically torturing people to pay back a vendetta.

Here’s where you might stop me and say: “Aren’t you being a little harsh? Cassie’s only giving creeps what they deserve.” Point taken. She does do that and it’s satisfying! But there’s more to Cassie’s revenge-quest than that… Not only does she go after assaulters and rapists, but also witnesses, and people who legally defended rapists, and people who didn’t believe victims– both men and women.

And PYW clearly argues that these people are as bad as predators because they turn a blind eye to suffering. But the way Cassie deals with their transgressions are less justified than her tactics with the legitimate predators. Cassie evidently sees the world in black and white and hurts multiple people for what amounts to not agreeing with her world view, whether they’re direct perpetrators, or are merely a symptom of the larger problem. And I might forgive this more if the movie ever questioned Cassie’s methods. But she’s pretty much rationalized in every instance.

Carey Mulligan in a scene from Promising Young Woman

Those are my main gripes (for now), but there was a lot I liked about the film too! Let’s move on to some positives. First and foremost: Carey Mulligan was brilliant in her role as Cassie. I simultaneously feared her and wanted to hang out with her. The character has a fascinating duality between intelligent, relatable person and stone-cold (sorta?) vigilante. Mulligan played both with gravitas. Most of this film rested on her shoulders, to be honest! A lot of the elements I liked could have easily turned out badly had it not been for Mulligan’s portrayal.

The movie’s also a lot funnier than you’d expect from the premise. Most of the humour is dark, but still. It’s worth keeping in mind if you thought this was gonna be some super-serious drama about sexual assault. I mean, it is, but there’s plenty of levity in there too. 

I’ve talked a lot about the revenge-story element but not so much about the romance. Cassie’s main love interest, Ryan, is played by the talented Bo Burnham. He was quite charming in his role. I like the awkwardness he brought to the character. Because sometimes when actors play awkward it comes across as “Ha ha! Look at me. Aren’t I sooooo quirky?” But Burnham’s Ryan legitimately seems like a regular dude with no confidence. Just like me!

How was the romance story? OK I guess. I found the general direction of Cassie and Ryan’s relationship’s fairly predictable. It was more the specifics I couldn’t guess, and those were interesting enough once everything had finally played out.

One element of Promising Young Woman which surprised me is its unconventional presentation of women who make life harder for female assault victims. I feel like in most movies where someone is assaulted, females often act as a support system for one another and band together against their common enemy: the predators. Not so in PYW. Some characters refuse to believe assault has taken place, actively dismissing the idea or blaming the victim, and others essentially defend abusers! Societal conversations surrounding sexual assault largely focus on holding predators to blame for their actions, but too often ignore those who make bad situations worse for victims through lack of support– or worse, by outright siding against them. I appreciated that PYW dared to wade into uncommon territory here.

SIDE NOTE: I’m aware women fighting amongst themselves is a negative stereotype in entertainment which many creators are understandably trying to move away from. But when discussing real issues, it’s important to acknowledge how people negatively react to situations alongside more positive spins to accurately reflect diverse opinions (harsh or sympathetic as they may be).

PYW also argues that bystanders are as bad as rapists. Sure, you might not have physically assaulted anyone yourself, but if you stood by to watch the assault took place, or knew something which you didn’t share, you’re condoning vile behaviour and justifying harm to others. Once again, Promising Young Woman delves into subject matter not discussed often enough. Whether you’ve been in a similar situation or not (as a witness or someone who knows something), it ought to make you think about your choices.

Skipping ahead now: without any spoilers, I’ve gotta admit that PYW’s ending didn’t satisfy me. It sorta makes sense for the plot, but also took an unnecessary turn that had me thinking, “Huh? What? Why is this happening?”. It’s sure as hell memorable, but the movie didn’t need to go where it did… Let’s just say bold choices were made.  

Cassie and Ryan visit a pharmacy in one of the movie’s funniest scenes

Before I wrap up, I wanna share my own (second-hand) experiences with sexual assault and how they changed my views over time…

It’s always easy to assume there’s no problem when you’ve never witnessed it or known someone affected. I used to think assault was rare. I lived in ignorance of the problem for a while– not because I was willfully avoiding it but because people just didn’t talk openly about these issues when I was growing up. But stories like the one I’m about to share, and others I’ve heard since (even more vile for the record) opened my eyes. And once women in my social circle started opening up about their own experiences with sexual assault/ harassment, I quickly realized this was a far more widespread problem than I’d ever imagined.

From the sounds of things, my high school had some serious problems with predatory behaviour. Much of this happened at parties after school to people I didn’t talk to, but I eventually heard the gossip. For the record– I never went to these parties myself and I wasn’t friends with any of the slime-balls (at least, not any that I knew of at the time). Just the opposite in fact! Here’s an anecdote taken from my personal journals which I wrote about 6 years ago (not word for word, but generally):

Once at a party (which I didn’t attend), a good friend of mine noticed some creepy dude lurking around this girl passed out in her bedroom. He went in and kicked the guy out so the girl could have some peace. Later, the guy tried to go back. My friend kicked him out again and stayed to guard the door this time. This prompted Creepy Guy to pick a fight, which was a bad idea because my friend was a bit of a brawler. Creepy guy tried to hit my friend. The prick was promptly picked up and thrown so hard he landed on the other side of the room! You’d think that would have taught him but apparently he tried yet again to go back in the girl’s room! Only this time the girl’s parents were home. I heard the father debated killing the guy before being talked down…

Like I said: I used to think this stuff didn’t happen much. And then I discovered I was simply unaware of the social problems around me. Sometimes you just don’t know what people have gone through. Either way I urge you: Be kind. Be empathetic. Be respectful. And don’t be a part of the problem.

Back to the movie now… Some important lessons to take away from Promising Young Woman (if you didn’t know already): Being impaired is not consent. Don’t be dumb. Know your decisions may come back to haunt you. And being a bystander is as bad as being a rapist.

Promising Young Woman makes for an… interesting time at the movies. I don’t want to call it entertaining, though it worked as a dark romantic comedy in many ways. It was more educational, I’d say, but not in a boring way. PYW is an uncomfortable movie with uncomfortable conversations. Such portrayals of assault and talking points around the topic are necessary ones for us to have as a culture. Enough will be enough when nobody must suffer sexual assault ever again! But I seriously hope that some assaulter (or would-be assaulter) happens upon Promising Young Woman and contemplates how their future (or past) actions affect people. If even one person can be spared a lifetime of trauma, or somebody learns the true value of consent, than this movie was worth it!

A great concept with occasionally questionable execution: Promising Young Woman is a Pretty Darn Good film.

Women and men, please let me know: how do guys at clubs behave on the whole? What did you think of Promising Young Woman? Please share your thoughts in the comments (no spoilers please). If you have any ideas for future articles, or any questions, let me know. Also be sure to Like this article on Facebook and share if you enjoyed!

Till next time,

Joe Morin

REVIEW METRIC: Don’t bother; If you’re bored; Worth a watch; Pretty darn good; Must see; Watch it A.S.A.P.

By Joseph Morin

Joe's passion for film and entertainment began at 7 years old when his younger brother demanded to watch Duel of the Fates every day for weeks (on DVD). Joe admired the sequence so much, he decided to dedicate his life to film-making and storytelling. He has a degree in Cinema and Media Studies from York University. Joe loves DC superheroes (especially Superman), the first six Star Wars movies, and arguing about media with anyone who will listen.

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