This ruse has been the primary part of Cassie’s life, probably since dropping out of med school several years earlier. A once-promising student herself, she quit after her lifelong friend and class valedictorian Nina accused another student of rape, was disbelieved and ostracized, and committed suicide. Now, Cassie works in a coffee shop with Gail (Laverne Cox) and wonders if this next drunk fakeout will be the time she’s surprised by a man. When former classmate and current pediatrician Ryan (Bo Burnham) stops in her shop and recognizes her from the old days, she reluctantly agrees to a date, where Ryan mentions that Nina’s alleged rapist Al (Chris Lowell) is getting married. This news focuses Cassie’s long-simmering rage, and she targets all those responsible in helping Al get away with his crime.
These stories of discounted sexual assault victims and the systems that zealously protect the accusers have become depressingly familiar, and Fennel recreates all of the excuses that we’ve come to expect. Oblivious classmate Madison (Allison Brie) remarks about Nina getting too drunk for her own good, and the medical school dean (Connie Britton) wasn’t willing to endanger a young man’s career. Cassie’s retorts, also familiar, are backed up with queasier questions about what she’s willing to do to spark empathy in these people. She’s remembered every Republican politician who had a change of heart when they, for example, have a child come out of the closet and now they are fine with gay rights. Fennel withholds from the viewer what Cassie is capable of, and as she constructs scenarios for Madison and the dean to put themselves in Nina’s shoes, the viewer is then forced to consider what would be a just punishment for their indifference. Revenge stories are always in danger of justifying the wronged party’s vigilantism and turning the protagonist from an anti-hero into a hero. By leaving a lot of her actions offscreen or in the what-if zone, Promising Young Woman keeps Cassie mysterious.
Wherever the film places her in the revenge protagonist pantheon, Promising Young Woman does have a perspective about the state of her life. At a certain point, if an experiment keeps giving the same result, the hypothesis is confirmed. Cassie has proven her hypothesis about the state of men and hook-up culture. What does a further data point add? Her parents, Gail, and even Nina’s mother wish she would move on and do something with her life. Coolidge’s teary frustration after Cassie forgets her own birthday is powerful enough to prevail over the inherent daffiness that she brings to every role and is the best dramatic work she’s ever done. As the film doles out more information about Cassie and Nina’s relationship, it becomes clear that Cassie was the follower and Nina the leader, and that Cassie has no identity without her best friend. She also questions the value of a productive and respectful life if a person can be a rapist and continue to have one. Ryan presents her with a way forward, an entrée back into a world of vulnerability and honesty. Burnham plays him as an understanding and patient man who’s considerate of his behavior and wants to be decent and admirable. His goofy charms draw Cassie into an adorable convenience store dance party, and their banter and chemistry is easy to believe. The film’s tone and Mica Levi-esque score by Anthony Willis takes a bubbly shift as their relationship blossoms, lulling the viewer into a sense of security and possibility that Cassie’s going to pull out of her stasis.
However, a film as black as this one can’t sustain that big of a tonal shift and Promising Young Woman has no choice but to return to its natural state. I’ve rarely been in a theater that experienced a collective breathlessness like the one inspired here. All the ugliness in the first act, the tidied-up Instagram posts that present monsters as sun-dappled vest models, the pathetic youtube videos about blow job lips, the grasping glee that Cassie’s classmates are implied to have taken at top-ranked Nina going down and thus elevating their ranks, plus the omnipresence of ‘nice guys’ who would gladly assault a debilitated woman, it all curdles into a substance too powerful for a cutesy singalong to overcome. As Cassie dons her now-iconic nurse costume and multi-colored wig to the distorted strings of a Toxic cover, there’s nowhere for the film to go other than where it ends up. Fennel has spoken about her preferred ending and the studio-mandated actual ending, and they don’t sit neatly next to each other. Fennel’s version would get the fabled F Cinemascore, but would be less muddy.
As the sole lead, Cassie is Mulligan’s most high-profile role and she provides an enigmatic, bulletproof center to the film. She’s portrayed as icy out of necessity and not choice, such that a buried warmth still shows signs of emerging. Her grief can be imagined in the immediate time after Nina’s death as total and consuming, and a force that strong has been compressed into a diamond of antipathy. The costuming department is having a field day with her, and Fennel includes no small amount of religious imagery to frame Cassie as a twisted angel of retribution. The moments where Cassie transitions from feigned drunkenness to acerbic sobriety are chilling in their ease. Her quarry, consciously cast from a stable of actors who’ve previously played nonthreatening characters, always follow the same script and Cassie’s reaction is never surprise, but weary boredom that no would-be rapist has concocted a new excuse.
Promising Young Woman asks how much a person can live with from multiple angles. How much pain can Cassie live with before she completely surrenders to it? How much bad behavior can a person ignore? The film provides multiple responses while also reminding the viewer that the person who’s decided they can tolerate a lot is indistinguishable from the person who won’t tolerate anything. The bad men look like men, and the bad women look like women. An early scene of Cassie being catcalled ends with the catcaller cursing at her after she does nothing but stare at him. Promising Young Woman insists on the humanity of its victims of sexual harassment and assault, and dehumanizes those who refuse to grant it. Cassie is a catalyst to make the distinction clear, and lets the viewer imagine what should happen next. B+