'Promising Young Woman': Film Review | Sundance 2020

A gutsy and pertinent debut.

Carey Mulligan stars in Emerald Fennell's shocking debut feature about a young woman confronting the traumas of her past.

"Promising" is indeed the word for Emerald Fennell in the wake of her startling debut feature as a writer-director with Promising Young Woman. Starting with what initially looks like a commonplace story of a thirtysomething woman who needs to get her act together and then taking it to entirely unexpected extremes dramatically and thematically, the British writer/director/actress shows real nerve and skill both as a storyteller and commentator on contemporary dynamics between women and men. This Focus Features release will look to stir up some deserved attention commercially and creatively upon its mid-April domestic release.

Among her other accomplishments, Fennell was showrunner and a writer on season two of Killing Eve, and she here demonstrates a fearlessness about narrative extremes and a skill with violence that were no doubt honed on that edgy show. More than that, once she’s channeled her dramatic themes and ambitions, she is clearly not afraid to go all the way with them. She’s got the goods.

Initially, Promising doesn’t seem to promise all that much. First glimpsed in a dissolute state in a nightclub, Cassie (Carey Mulligan) cuts the pathetic figure of a hopeless drunk. She looks a mess and seems not to care, barely doing the minimum at her coffee-shop day job. For her 30th birthday, her parents give her a suitcase (hint, hint). Time to move out, young lady.

Not yet entirely adept at handling exposition in a seamless, unobvious way, Fennell informs us that Cassie attended med school but dropped out. In due course, she runs into a former classmate, Ryan (Bo Burnham, director of the terrific Eighth Grade), who’s now a pediatric surgeon. This optimistically turns into an all-day date, but another blast from the past in the form of another guy sets off some different memories.

Up to this point, the pic seems a bit hackneyed, a look at a woman who’s still behaving like a dumb, substance-abusing, club-going kid when she hits the big 3-0. But almost as if announcing a shifting of gears into something far more significant, the director begins announcing chapter heads with bold Roman numerals — we know something more is up.

Chapter I involves Cassie’s encounter with Madison (Alison Brie), a former friend and classmate now married to a wealthy guy who, it seems, might have had something to do with why Cassie dropped out of med school. Matters become more sinister in Chapter II when Cassie returns to her old school for a confrontation with the dean (Connie Britton), who occasioned the girl’s departure from academia. Chapter III begins with Cassie appearing at the door of another academic (Alfred Molina), who had made threats against her unless she dropped her case. There is subsequent talk of an out-of-control bachelor party, a notorious videotape and other sordid doings, all in the nature of things that used to be hushed up and never spoken of again but are now being brought out into the open.

It only gets worse — far worse — in Chapter IV, with Fennell going to astonishing lengths both in detailing the damage done to Cassie, the efforts made to cover up and the long reach of much-delayed retribution. From its modest beginnings as a story about a young woman who gets trashed most nights, Promising Young Woman ventures boldly and very far in suggesting the extent to which sexual abuse took place and was — and is — then neatly swept out of sight, not to be mentioned again.

Fennell’s film could be called a polemic, but dramatically it’s so sharply and boldly laid out that its narrative shocks rule the day. It’s jolting to witness how it refuses to let anyone off the hook.

Ever since her breakthrough performance in An Education, it’s been clear that Mulligan has no problem carrying a film, and she certainly proves that again here with a role that demands considerable range and a great development arc, from self-pitying empty shell to consummate avenger. At brief moments, one questions the plausibility of Cassie having the capacity to dare and then pull off what she manages here, but Mulligan gets you over those bumps as well as anyone could.

Burnham is affable if unexciting as the one guy Cassie can, sort of, legitimately let into her life, and Molina socks over his brief part as a troubled figure from her past. 

Promising Young Woman is a film that dares to take a chance, and wins.

Production company: Lucky Chap Entertainment
Distributor: Focus Features
Cast: Carey Mulligan, Bo Burnham, Alison Brie, Connie Britton, Adam Brody, Jennifer Coolidge, Laverne Cox, Max Greenfield, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Chris Lowell, Sam Richardson, Molly Shannon, Clancy Brown, Alfred Molina
Director-screenwriter: Emerald Fennell
Producers: Margot Robbie, Josey McNamara, Tom Ackerley, Ben Browning, Ashley Fox
Director of photography: Benjamin Kracun
Production designer: Michael T. Perry
Costume designer: Nancy Steiner
Editor: Frederic Thoraval
Music: Anthony Willis
Casting: Mary Vernieu, Lindsay Graham-Ahanonu
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)


113 minutes