- Katie Bell
Promising Young Woman (2020)
This movie starts with close ups of butts and groins. However, it's not women that we're looking at, it's businessmen. It may be my favourite thing about this film...okay, it's not. But there's no denying that as I was watching business-man-butts grinding on the dancefloor, I couldn't help but think..."this is weird". It took pretty much until the end of the sequence for me to realise that Emerald Fennell was role-reversing a popular cinematic trope from franchises like The Fast and the Furious. I'm not joking. I was slow on the uptake. But when I eventually figured it out, I loved it.
Promising Young Woman (2020) follows protagonist Cassie, as she seeks vengeance against both people in her past, and "nice guys" in pubs and clubs. This promising young woman, heads out on the town, pretends to be intoxicated, and invariably a "gentleman" always offers to take her home, and invariably, she almost always ends up in their apartment instead. Cassie is a woman on a mission; not only is she after revenge, but she also wants to ensure that anyone who claims to be a "nice person" realises that they're not...or that they're a hypocrite...or that they're complicit in the wrongdoings of other people. This is a hard truth, that not all of the characters are willing to accept, and at every turn, Cassie is underestimated. I have no idea why though. Anyone who let's tomato sauce drip to their elbow is dangerous.
Fennell has a knack for creating scenes that are hard to watch and are downright uncomfortable. And it's nothing short of excellent. "Uncomfortable scenes" aren't usually something that I'd want to willingly sit through, but in this instance, Fennell is holding up a mirror to societal truths that we sometimes aren't willing to acknowledge or hurry to hide. There is a moment in an apartment, when Cassie is seemingly intoxicated and asking to go home, and a man holds her neck in his hand, and kisses her face, and you better believe she does not kiss him back. It makes you squirm, and it's clever. Then Al Monroe is introduced. This is a man who was accused of rape...and got off, because he's such a nice guy and he has so much potential and innocent until proven guilty and all of that. Oh, and by the by, those uncomfortable feelings that I mentioned before, only worsen when you hear that Al Monroe is now an anesthesiologist...I'll just let that sit in your brain for a moment while I prepare my notes for the next paragraph...
At this point, I'm probably butchering Fennell's work by over-simplifying it. This film is both a weird mix of blatant victim-blaming lines that audiences are all too familiar with, and nuanced storytelling/messaging. How can you have both? Not sure, but Fennell achieves it, and the impact is undeniable. Every time Cassie goes out (or just interacts with people who she knows) we hear things like: "You know they put themselves in danger...girls like that," "That is just asking for it," "It's every guy's worst nightmare getting accused like that," and "None of us want to admit when we've made ourselves vulnerable". There's also a scene where one of the aforementioned "gentlemen", Neil (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), discusses the oppression of women being wrong, before forcing coke into Cassie's mouth, despite her saying no. Yes, these lines are phrases that audience members have heard before. However, the purpose isn't necessarily the same, as what we've seen in other films. This isn't primarily about Cassie rising up against the patriarchy to prove them wrong. Many of the people delivering these lines, explicitly claim to be good people, to be on Cassie's side, to want to help her. They talk and talk about what good people they are, as if it's going to erase the predatory way that they've treated Cassie, or the way in which they've turned a blind eye to what other people have done, because those people, are also apparently good people. This message is only reinforced through the hiring of actors like Adam Brody, Chris Lowell and Max Greenfield. Sure, I don't know these actors personally, and I can't speak to their actual nature, but I can say that when I've seen them perform in other projects, I've often considered them to be "good guys". These are actors that I trust. Breaking that trust, only heightens the impact. And this is a purposeful. Literally any unrecognisable actor could have played Brody's Jerry in the opening moments. But a familiar face has been picked and it works. It makes the audience consider their own behaviours, and the people who they are close with. To say it makes you think is an understatement.
The way that I've been harping on, you may think that Promising Young Woman (2020), is a long lecture. It's not. Fun certainly isn't the right word to use here, however this film is certainly colourful. Literally colourful. There's plenty of pastel colours and neon lights. And then there are the tracks. Stars Are Blind by Paris Hilton, Toxic by Britney Spears and It's Raining Men by DeathbyRomy all make an appearance, as well as 2 Become 1 by the Spice Girls, which really took me by surprise. It's not that I don't enjoy the Spice Girls, it's that I didn't expect it to play in a rideshare in a 2020 film. Was it the driver's music? Was it the radio? Who knows? I enjoyed it nevertheless.
At it's core, this film argues that it is never okay to be complicit, and I really should make it clear that this message is relevant to everyone, it's not directly aimed at men. Promising Young Woman (2020), will make you think and is worth a watch. And if you need any other reasons to view this film, you should know that I think it's unbelievably cool that Cassie's final act of vengeance occurs on my birthday...which is kind of a spoiler, if you know my birthday (sorry). You can catch Promising Young Woman (2020) now at cinemas across the country.