Sundance 2020 Review: Promising Young Woman has a lot to say and isn’t afraid of saying it.
The trailer for Promising Young Woman had me intrigued. As a fan of Carey Mulligan, this looked very different from her previous work. The trailer itself does a great job of building mystery and suspense. I walked into the premiere of the film at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, hoping to see something good and walked out utterly speechless and completely blown away.
As a critic, I often say you should go into a movie knowing as little as possible, and that definitely applies to this film. The trailer captures the essence of what the film is ultimately all about, but if you haven’t seen it, I will keep this synopsis brief. Promising Young Woman follows a woman named Cassie (Mulligan) who goes to various bars and clubs, pretending to be intoxicated. Week after week, some random guy approaches Cassie, offering to assist her in getting home safely. Little do they know that she is about to teach them a lesson they will never forget.
It has been a very long time since I walked out of a film where I couldn’t believe what I just saw. Promising Young Woman doesn’t pull any punches in going to the places it goes. I am sure the phrase “toxic masculinity” will be used a lot in discussing the film, but there’s more going on. This is a film about the aftermath of a tragic event. Mulligan’s Carrie is all about seeking out the truth while putting the viewer in the shoes of the victim.
This is a BOLD film that somehow manages to be upbeat, entertaining, and funny yet also tragic, dark, and even inspirational. It is a masterwork in storytelling and filmmaking. Writer/director Emerald Fennell has so much to say and isn’t afraid to say it.
Promising Young Woman is also a very challenging film to review because I don’t want to spoil anything, so I do apologize in advance if I am somewhat vague. There have been so many films centered on female characters seeking revenge, especially in recent years with the Times Up and #MeToo movements. I find the vast majority of these films to be engaging but rarely do I walk away from them feeling as though they make a strong enough statement or left an impression. This is not the case with Promising Young Woman. It doesn’t skirt around the issue but instead addresses it head-on. What the film says is haunting and unforgettable. It takes risks and goes to places most other movies are too afraid to. It pushes boundaries, and while doing so, makes a statement that will leave the audience thinking about it for days, if not weeks after seeing it.
Fennell, who is best known for her work on Killing Eve, created a film that refuses to follow the rules seemingly set for stories centered around sexual assault and abuse. One of the most fascinating things about this script is how the word “rape” is never used. I feel like the term “rape” is tossed around so casually nowadays, so seeing its absence in this film, which tackles the subject, is a breath of fresh air. Moreover, I applaud Fennell for not going the easy route and playing up the “all men are bad” angle. She makes sure all of the characters are developed and doesn’t gloss over the idea that women make mistakes and can also be at fault.
From the very beginning, Fennel plays with the audience’s expectation as we get to go on this wild ride with Cassie. This film reminded me of Parasite in the way it blurs the lines of genre so seamlessly. This is a film about sexual assault, and yet, at one point, it turns into a romantic comedy before becoming a horror flick. The shift in tone feels natural as you see this change within Cassie as the film progresses. This could very well be the best performance from Carey Mulligan to date and, at the very least, her most challenging. It’s a multi-layered performance and one that, if given to the wrong actress, could have been a total disaster. The way Mulligan portrays Cassie is no easy task because this is clearly a person who has dealt with a lot emotionally and physically. You have to find the right balance between determined and over-the-top, and Mulligan crushes it.
Comedian (and acclaimed filmmaker) Bo Burnham has had a handful of acting roles before this one, but he really gets to show off his skills here. Burnham has such a natural on-screen presence and lights up the screen whenever he’s around. Without giving anything away, any viewer should pay close attention to the words and actions of Burnham’s character, Ryan. I don’t think I will be able to look at him the same way again after seeing this film, as there is a lot more than what initially meets the eye when it comes to his performance.
There are a ton of great moments throughout this film, but the unexpected twists and turns are where Promising Young Woman truly shines. The story plays out in such a smart way that even though the ending isn’t exactly a happy one, it still makes you want to stand up and cheer because it wasn’t afraid to go there. I loved that so much. Yes, I know I am being vague, but there are honestly at least four or five surprises that made my jaw drop.
I say in full confidence that Promising Young Woman is one of the best films of the year, and one that could easily see Mulligan earning herself plenty of award recognition. She delivers an incredibly complex, challenging, and captivating performance that demands to be seen.
Promising Young Woman is a must-see and a film you soon won’t forget. I cannot wait for more people to see this film because it is a real conversation starter. It’s all the better for being a movie that could make an impact on the way we view and treat those who have been victims of sexual assault. This film is a game-changer.