Promising Young Woman (I’ll be referring to it as PYW from now on) was written and directed by Emerald Fennell, and stars Carey Mulligan and Bo Burnham. The movie follows Cassie, a 30-year-old, med-school dropout, as she seeks revenge for an event that scarred her from her past. I went into this movie knowing nothing about it, other than Emerald Fennell’s previous work includes modern hits like Killing Eve, and being a huge fan of Mulligan, so when I saw the premise and it being described as a darkly-comedic, crime-drama, I imagined something gritty with excessive violence that would serve as crime and comedy; thank god, I did not make this movie, because what we got instead is so much better and fresh.
The reason for why I enjoyed PYW so much more is actually quite simple: The movie is never looking to give easy answers to simplified questions and it never forgets to have fun with its premise. It doesn’t take the subject matter lightly or converts it into a joke, but it also is not a dark, gritty story; it is colorful, funny, and exciting to watch. It takes great care to write compelling characters and stories, but it also puts equal effort in making them as cinematic and entertaining as possible. No one exemplifies this best than Carey Mulligan, who is once again, excellent; she portrays someone who is broken and gets up to some shady and evil shit, but she never forgets to give humanity to her character, make her compelling and engaging, and deliver some of the funniest moments with charisma and flair. Burnham is also surprisingly good in his role; I don’t know much about him besides the fact that he is a comedian (I haven’t actually seen any of his material yet), but he is really good as a comedic actor and does a fairly decent job at the dramatic aspects as well.
The person who steals the show though, has to be Fennell; the writing creates compelling characters and storylines that are satisfying to follow and exciting to interact with, while the directing delivers those qualities with on-point comedic timing and a borderline 4th wall-breaking self-awareness that is the cherry on the top, for both dramatic and comedic purposes. Above all, Fennell clearly wanted to make a movie that subverts expectations and took the time and effort to properly set-up and execute that subversion to allow the audience to come to the conclusion on their own; in other words, this isn’t a movie with twists and turns just to keep people’s attention, it’s a movie that wants you to understand something about its characters and narrative, and does it in a way that both entertains and allows you to make the deductions yourself and feel that satisfaction of putting everything together. I don’t want to get into any specific points, because a lot of the entertainment comes from finding those out yourself, but Fennell leaves no weapon unused from her arsenal, like specific casting decisions of actors known for a stereotype, tropes from genre movies, and even the musical decisions are all made and executed in a way that succeed in setting the tone, informing the audience of what needs to be understood, and creates entertainment through some uniquely subversive uses of those elements; let’s just say that Britney Spear’s Toxic has never sounded so…unique.
Furthermore, I want to specifically focus a bit on the visuals of the movie. Benjamin Kracun is the director of photography for the movie and he does an incredible job at capturing this sinister side of modern society, through a glossy/trashy-pop lens. Cassie is not a raven-haired, gloomy character despite her troubled past; she is stuck in her college phase, working in a cafeteria, enjoying candy, and dressing with vivid colors and strong make-up. This comes through the set and costume designs, but also on how the colors pop, almost to an unnatural level especially in the daylight scenes, where the light that enters through the windows is washed out and too harsh to look out, as if waking up from a hangover. On the contrary, just as the furniture, the colors, and the ambience looks off in the daylight, everything looks “right” in the night, with the club-lighting, the artificial light sources, the less-intimate environments, which creates an interesting juxtaposition with the context of what is happening in the night scenes and how natural and great everything looks visually.
Despite how much I loved this movie, how well thought out I found it, and how much fun and engaging it was, the ending was a mixed bag for me. I can’t really explain in detail why, since this is a spoiler-free review, but I can describe the experience. As I was watching the ending unfold, I was getting the intended experience (or at least what I think the intended experience was) and I was thrilled with it, but as soon as the movie ended and I giddily started to unwrap and digest everything about the movie, the ending started losing a lot of its impact – not specifically the events of the ending, but the context of the characters involved and how contrived and convenient it all felt, once the initial “shock” had warned off. So, the ending did work for me, its just that on further inspection it starts to lose a lot of the virtues the rest of the movie has; I love thinking about and discussing everything before the end, but as soon as I do the same for the ending it doesn’t hold up as well.
Regardless, I feel that PYW is one of the best movies of 2020; I loved so much of what it does and I look forward to watching it again and suggesting it to other people and discussing it with them. Fennell has a lot of talent (she is actually more recognized for her acting work, which I haven’t come across yet) and I can add her name to the list of creators I want to follow and I can’t wait to see what she does next.