Promising Young Woman Review (Sundance 2020)

Carey Mulligan stars as Cassie in director Emerald Fennell’s PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN, a Focus Features release. Credit: Courtesy of Focus Features

Carey Mulligan burns up the screen in this scalpel-sharp, dark-comedy revenge thriller that serves as a white-hot reckoning for rape culture.

The #MeToo era has been a time of reckoning for rape culture, that is, the pervasive societal and cultural norms and systems that have allowed for a certain turning of a blind eye to sexual assault that is perpetrated more often (though not always) by men. It’s relatively easy, now that they’ve been exposed, to call out the Bill Cosbys and Harvey Weinsteins as monsters for their crimes, but the culture that allowed their actions to go unchecked for so long doesn’t just exist in Hollywood, or around such powerful men. It exists in high schools and colleges, in workplaces of every kind, on dates, in bars. There’s always been a certain slipperiness when it comes to your “casual” everyday garden-variety sexual assault – “Is she just playing hard to get?” “Wasn’t she sort of asking for it?” “Should she really have been drinking so much?” “How do we know she’s telling the truth?” And “Do we really want to ruin the reputation of this promising young man?”

The #MeToo renaissance has also brought with it a bevy of fresh female voices that have tackled the subject artistically in a variety of ways, including writer/director/actor Emerald Fennell, perhaps best known as the Emmy-winning Showrunner for Season 2 of Killing Eve, who has created a pointed commentary in Promising Young Woman, a scalpel-sharp, darkly comedic revenge-thriller that calls out rape culture and brings the receipts in a biting, relatable, entertaining and ultimately deeply affecting way.

Promising Young Woman tells the story of Cassie (Carey Mulligan), a bright, once-promising medical student who suddenly dropped out of college for mysterious reasons. Now at age 30, she works a dead-end job at a coffee shop, lives with her parents, doesn’t date and has no social life to speak of except for one particular hobby – exacting revenge upon the type of men who would take advantage of a woman while she’s falling-down drunk at a bar. 

Cassie’s reasons for dropping out of college, we learn, have to do with a mysterious traumatic incident involving her best friend Nina. When a former classmate, Ryan (Bo Burnham), wanders into the coffee shop, it sparks a potential love interest as well as a fresh re-examination of the past that awakens in Cassie both a glimpse of her former self and an even deeper need for vengeance. Eventually Cassie’s pent-up rage and trauma culminate in her biggest, most singularly purposeful plan for revenge yet. 

Mulligan gives a strong, searing and empathetic performance as Cassie, burning up the screen the entire time as a dark hero of sorts, doling out justice on behalf of all women for all the ways in which a promising young woman’s life and innocence can be destroyed by a system and a culture that has been conditioned to either ignore or be complicit in injustices against women for too long.

Complete with a vibrantly-colored, candy-coated palette and a wicked rendition of Britney Spears’ “Toxic,” Promising Young Woman is a distinctly female battle-cry that is funny, smart and surprising – and more thought-provoking and hard-hitting than you might expect.


RUN TIME 113 min

Company Focus Features

In Theaters April 17, 2020

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