Promising Young Woman
Carey Mulligan, Bo Burnham, Jennifer Coolidge, Clancy Brown, Laverne Cox, Alison Brie, Chris Lowell, Max Greenfield, Connie Britton, Adam Brody, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Alfred Molina
What may be one of the most important films of our time, Promising Young Woman explores toxic masculinity in a cogent, courageous framework that demands the audience reconcile its own complicity in the societal structures that let young men escape responsibility for their words and actions.
Cassie is one of Carey Mulligan’s most uncompromising, astute, and powerful performances. Her character is that of a young woman who once had an incredibly promising career as a doctor ahead of her, but who dropped out of med school in order to care for her best friend Nina who was raped by a classmate. Cassie now spends her nights playing drunk at local bars in order to test men and how they handle women. The opening scene is between Cassie and a seemingly caring bar patron (Adam Brody) who initially effuses concern for the wasted young woman he and his slimy associates are observing. As he prepares to make sure she gets home, his own lasciviousness takes over and he invites her back to his place where we learn more about his character and hers. She wants to ensure that no one else has to go through what Nina went through and is willing to employ any method necessary, even shame, to accomplish that.
As the film progresses, Cassie meets an old collegiate classmate (Bo Burnham) who seems smitten with her, but her past experiences have led her to be overly cautious of his intentions at first. Over time, she becomes convinced that he is nothing like the dozens of other men she’s exposed in the past. As she struggles to let go of her preconceptions, she begins to explore her emotional stagnation in an effort to understand why she does what she does. Memories flood in as she initially ramps up her attempts to educate Nina’s rapist and his surrogate defenders on the errors of their ways, but eventually begins to relent as her faith in men begins to improve through her deepening relationship with Burnham’s Ryan.
Throughout her interpersonal journey, her frustration turns to resignation and to anger as the societal framework that surrounds her continue to support the voluminous excuses she’s heard countless times about men who are trying to be better, but who ultimately retreat once they realize that the power structure they’ve existed and even excelled in are being questioned. Writer/director Emerald Fennell not only tackles numerous rationales men present to absolve themselves of the responsibility for their actions while she astutely observes the tenacity and insidiousness of toxic masculinity and its deep roots inside a patriarchal culture. While the film isn’t specifically about the 2018 confirmation hearing of now-Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, it’s difficult not to see strong and frightening connections to that event. Kavanaugh’s male and female defenders have asked why he should be punished for his actions while younger, but Fennell asks why not and specifically demands that they be held accountable.
Promising Young Woman could be subtitled “A Guide to Toxic Masculinity” and should most definitely be used as a litmus test for anyone who sees it, especially straight white men. This is not a question of their appreciation of the film itself, but of how they present their critiques of it. The film itself is a ready-made counterpoint to any defense of the men and women in the film who were taken down a peg by a conscientious young woman hoping to enlighten those around her about the seriousness and dangerousness of the modern moral imperative that would demand absolution for those who have committed atrocities in the past. Ideally, the film acts as a benchmark against which men should be compared. Continuing to defend someone who has committed a crime, no matter how long in the past, only enhances and strengthens the notion that men should be held accountable only in the present tense, not for their past deeds. Our current society and legal system both tend to protect men from their accusers while affording women no foundation from which to fight.
Fennell’s screenplay and direction are superb, giving the subject matter her full attention and exploring as many nuances as possible in the long struggle for equal treatment under the law and within society. Her passionate film is sobering, staggering, and shocking in its faithful and forthright exploration of sexual abuse, sexual assault, and rape as well as the ramifications these events have on the lives of the women to whom they happen and to those who might suffer the same indignities in the future. Fennell’s astute observations help give the audience a guidebook on what to look for and how to approach concepts that society has to date determined should be kept quiet or minimized so as not to act to the detriment of the patriarchal society around them.
It’s easy to dismiss the solid supporting cast of this film, few of whom come off better as the film progresses, but Burnham, Laverne Cox as Cassie’s coffee shop boss, Alison Brie as Cassie and Nina’s former friend, and Chris Lowell as Nina’s rapist all deliver solid performances. Everyone else around them is effective at the minor roles they are given. Yet, all of them pale in comparison to Mulligan who is fierce, undaunted, and passionate in her attempt to rebuke all notions that men are blameless for their crimes.
Our culture has created a foundation on which men’s inflated senses of self-importance can solidly stand, but the audience is encouraged to strike out against a power structure that hurts women for being brave enough to come forward and which enables men to double and triple-down on their behavior with any number of prefabricated excuses that society is meant simply to accept. Yet, this film assures the viewer that it is incumbent upon all of us to recognize the myriad ways men can defend themselves against being accused of being part of the problem and to encourage us to point out when such expectations and excuses are never ok to defend, no matter how much you were raised to believe the opposite.
Promising Young Woman is a call to arms to women and men to acknowledge these core societal issues, speak out against them, and push towards a more honest, fair, and equal treatment of sexual assault and rape victims in our culture. After all, why should a promising young man be allowed to skate around his own past and failures while a promising young woman is expected to give it all up in order to accept that the injustices inflicted upon her are an accepted part of life rather than what they really are: unacceptable and deserving of punishment.
Probables: Actress (Carey Mulligan)
Potentials: Picture, Directing, Original Screenplay, Film Editing
December 8, 2020