A young woman, seemingly very drunk, is taken home by a young man purporting to protect her from other, more predatory men. Back at his place he is immediately all over her, even as she is unable to provide consent or defend herself.
Suddenly she sits up, actually quite sober, very lucid and pointedly asks the simple question, “What are you doing?”
That question from its opening moments forms something of a thesis statement for the movie “Promising Young Woman,” a darkly comic, deadly serious story about rape culture, male-female power dynamics and personal accountability set to a candy confectionary aesthetic of bright colors and sugary pop music. In some ways the movie is like when the lights come on at the end of the night in a club and what once felt seductive is in an instant revealed to be seedy.
“The thing that interests me so much and was so kind of enjoyable examining in this film was that we are all living in dread of being discovered as being bad people. That’s a human thing,” said writer-director Emerald Fennell. “It doesn’t matter what the context is, who it is. Everyone wakes up every day thinking they’re good.
“This is a movie about people thinking they’re good. And then a woman who turns up in the middle of the night and tells them that they’re not good. And so that thing of ‘What are you doing?’ It’s deeply frightening. What are we doing?”
The movie is the feature debut for Fennell, seen as Camilla Parker-Bowles on “The Crown” and who was showrunner on the second season of “Killing Eve.” “Promising Young Woman” premiered earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival and was originally scheduled to be released by Focus Features in the spring but was delayed because of the pandemic and is now being released to theaters on Christmas Day and to VOD in a few weeks.
The movie is already building steady awards season momentum and has become one of the leading conversation pieces of the season. The Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. named Mulligan best actress and recognized Fennell for best screenplay. (Full disclosure: This writer is a member.) The Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. reclassified the film from comedy to drama for the Golden Globes.
This feature writing-directing debut from Emerald Fennell (“Killing Eve”) puts a sharp, tonally unsettling spin on the rape-revenge thriller.
In the film, Cassandra (Mulligan), who also goes by Cassie, is unable to get past the death of her best friend Nina in the aftermath of Nina’s rape accusations going unresolved. Cassie has dropped out of medical school, lives with her parents and now works in a coffee shop. She spends her nights going to bars, acting drunk, letting guys pick her up and exacting her revenge when they try to take advantage of who they think is a vulnerable victim.
The series of skeevy guys are played by actors known for playing likable men on TV, including Adam Brody, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Sam Richardson, Chris Lowell and Max Greenfield. Alison Brie, Connie Britton, Laverne Cox, Jennifer Coolidge, Molly Shannon, Alfred Molina and Clancy Brown are all also part of the cast.
Cassandra eventually begins dating a former med-school colleague, Ryan (Bo Burnham), and seems to be on the road to rebuilding her life when the specter of what happened to Nina reasserts itself. The film’s ending — no spoilers here — puts a twist on a twist in a way that leaves audiences reeling, some with shocked delight and some with aggravated displeasure.
“I like films that leave you wondering and don’t tie things up in bows and don’t answer things for you,” said Mulligan. “I don’t like the easy answers, and I think Emerald has given the audience so much credit .... And the fact that it doesn’t all get wrapped up in a nice ribbon so you can all walk away and forget about it, I think is so much a part of it.”
The film is produced by LuckyChap Entertainment, the company run by Margot Robbie, Tom Ackerley, Sophia Kerr and Josey McNamara who earlier this year also made the Robbie-starring “Birds of Prey.” The company got involved with the project early on, based on Fennell’s pitch of the movie’s opening scene.
“We could see what it was from Day 1. There were no question marks,” said McNamara. “Emerald had a clear idea of what she wanted to do straight away. And I think that just gave us a really easy path to getting it made in terms of what her vision was. I think it was that clarity in what she wanted to do. It felt very unique to her and that there would be no one else that really could tell that story.”
As part of Fennell’s desire to continually keep audiences off-balance — is that blood or ketchup running down Cassandra’s arm?; what do those multicolored notations she makes in a notebook after her nighttime excursions mean? — there is a genuine romance tucked into the movie. Many scenes between Cassandra and Ryan are disarmingly sweet, including the showstopping moment when they dance around a pharmacy to Paris Hilton’s 2006 single “Stars Are Blind.”
Fennell has declared the song as her favorite, and Burnham said how repeated listens brought him around to appreciating it as well.
“I think it does something similar to what the whole movie does, which is just reclaim these sort of poppy, feminine aesthetics that people have relegated to being shallow and decorative and shows that there’s a power to them and there’s a depth there too,” said Burnham.
“When you dig past the surface, when you get past your aesthetic judgment of it, you actually see that there’s actually something really dark and painful in this Paris Hilton song,” he added.
Regarding the movie’s stylized world of dank nightclubs, soft pastels in the coffee shop or hilariously Rococo decor in Cassie’s parents’ house, Fennell referenced the “beautiful trap” of films such as “Midsommar,” “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” and “Funny Games” for the way they mix style, dark humor and a disturbing view of the world.
“I guess I wanted the world to approximate Cassie’s point of view,” said Fennell. “And so I wanted to make her look completely innocuous and inviting and fun, the way that she hides in plain sight with her manicure and the clothes and the hair. In the same way that people don’t take Britney Spears’ music serious. Certainly they love it, but they might not take it as seriously as the Rolling Stones’ music. People don’t really think that makeup and fashion and stuff are the preserve of serious things, serious cinema, serious people. And I personally disagree. I completely disagree.
“What I decided to do at the beginning was be like, ‘OK, these are the things I like. Some people won’t and some people will. And I’m going to treat it all very unironically,’” said Fennell. “I love Paris Hilton, and I love Britney. I love manicures. I love clothes. Those don’t make me a silly person. I think often they’re dismissed, those sorts of things. And so I wanted to be like, ‘Just because a girl looks like this does not mean she isn’t holding a world of terror and rage inside her.’”
I love manicures. I love clothes. Those don’t make me a silly person ... Just because a girl looks like this does not mean she isn’t holding a world of terror and rage inside her.
— Emerald Fennell, writer-director of ‘Promising Young Woman’
For Mulligan, that similar sense of subversion carried over throughout the film. In contrast to her everyday looks, Cassandra concocts elaborate disguises, from office worker drab to grungy chic to full glamour girl and even stripper nurse, for her nocturnal missions to be picked up by different guys. (Fennell has a brief cameo giving an online makeup tutorial.)
All of which was carefully calculated to slip a surprise to audiences, dealing with serious and uncomfortable topics in ways that they could find enjoyable.
“We can’t keep telling these stories the same way. First of all, it’s just boring for an audience, but secondly, it makes people dismiss the subject or tire of the subject, and it’s not a subject that we can afford to tire of,” Mulligan said. “I remember when Emerald and I sat down for the first time, she said, ‘Look, I just don’t want to make a film where the lead is a woman in a gray cardigan staring out of the window and crying. That’s just not what this [is].’
Burnham joked that he was “happy-offended” to be offered the part of a guy who presents himself as, and likely believes himself to be, a nice guy who when it matters can be anything but.
Burnham, who wrote and directed the film “Eighth Grade,” a sympathetic portrait of a teenage girl, was intrigued by Fennell’s portrait of male complicity, the ways in which seemingly harmless behaviors create space for those with more purposefully nefarious intentions.
“It always seemed strange to me that when the conversations surrounding #MeToo went anywhere past the most egregiously obvious monsters like Bill Cosby or Harvey Weinstein, whenever the conversation went past the most black-and-white criminal behavior, men got so defensive,” said Burnham. “If the problem is only putting the most famous serial abusers in jail, it would obviously be much more solvable and less messy than it actually is. Reading this script, it felt like a really elegant and entertaining and sort of inviting way to have that conversation.
“And that felt really valuable. The movie could really examine the more subtle ways in which men can be complicit in this stuff, in a way that doesn’t feel like you’re sitting down and getting a talking to, it’s an entertaining story that you can watch. I hadn’t really realized how important this subject was in this manner and on this scale until I read the script.”
Equally audacious to their dance number is the meet-cute scene when Ryan first sees Cassandra at the coffee shop where she works. When he accidentally insults her for having dropped out of medical school, she spits in his coffee before handing it to him. And he drinks it anyway.
So did Mulligan really spit in Burnham’s coffee?
“Real spit. And he drank it every time,” said Mulligan with a mix of pride and disbelief. “And by the way, we had just met. We had a chemistry read. We had two hours of rehearsals or something. And then we filmed that on the first day.”
“I was like, ‘Hey, Carey, it’s not even your coverage. You can simulate it,’” said Burnham with a laugh. “She just started spitting in it when she was very clearly off-camera. There was at least two takes where I absolutely drank extra foam. It was good because it was literally the first scene we did. So it was a really good icebreaker.”
None of which takes away from the serious issues at the film’s center and the way it grapples with the real problems of how to move forward in life after suffering severe trauma.
“I think it is a film about how rage manifests itself in one particular person and how I suppose that rage probably feels quite familiar to a lot of people,” said Fennell. “I wanted to write a revenge movie that felt like it had a real woman at the center of it. And so that rage felt much more internalized and much less prone to violence.
“I think for me it’s a film about forgiveness versus punishment,” said Fennell. “Everything Cassie does is because she loves someone and nobody will admit that something that happened to the person that she loves was wrong. So she can’t get over it because no one will admit it. And I think that’s something that we all feel very familiar with.”
A guaranteed conversation-starter, “Promising Young Woman” is a perhaps above all else a bundle of contradictions, just like the character at its center. And Fennell wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I don’t have any answers. I just was trying to write something that approximated how complicated and awful and interesting it felt to me,” said Fennell. “What people talk about afterwards, I’d hope that part of it is self-reflection, for people who maybe have been part of this culture, which I would say is most people, certainly like my age, and feel that it’s OK to talk about it a bit more openly.
“But really also, I made a film that I want people to like, and I’d like them to talk about the film as well as the stuff itself,” said Fennell. “There is performance and the way we made it and the music and all that kind of stuff. I think I’d underestimated, because of the nature of the movie and its content, that of course [the subject matter] is the thing that everyone wants to talk about. But everything I feel is sort of in the film.”
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