'Promising Young Woman' Is a Great, Angry Revenge Movie, Featuring a Paris Hilton Song
Promising Young Woman opens with the beats of Charli XCX's "Boys." If you're familiar with the 2017 song, it's almost impossible to extricate it from its music video, which features all sorts of hot celebrity men preening for the camera in various states of undress. Those are not the kind of images that start Promising Young Woman, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival over the weekend. Rather, it's gyrating hips of men wearing khakis, blissfully unaware of the space they are taking up and how gross they are. In Promising Young Women, "boys" and boyish behavior are not things to be proud of or celebrated; they're constant threats that need to be extinguished at all costs.
"Boys" is just one of many hilarious pop music cues that course through this funny, upsetting, and thrilling response to the #MeToo movement by director Emerald Fennell, best known as Camilla on The Crown and the Season 2 showrunner of Killing Eve. It's the rare movie that had people at Sundance debating its viciously disturbing ending and also humming Paris Hilton's 2006 foray into singing, "Stars Are Blind."
These are the games Promising Young Woman is playing as both a confection and a movie that burrows under your skin. Carey Mulligan plays Cassie, a woman who we first meet near passed out in the banquette of a bar filled with dudes in ill-fitting suits, pounding drinks. But Cassie is not actually passed out. This is a thing she does: She goes to a club, pretends to be drunk to the point of incapacitation, and waits until a guy comes over under the pretenses of being nice, but is looking to take advantage of her.
Cassie is on a mission to teach men, who wouldn't consider themselves predators but who engage in predatory behavior, a sobering lesson. And while she gets a certain amount of glee out of this, it's a habit she developed to satiate an emptiness in her soul after the loss of her best friend, Nina, who is never seen on camera. It takes a while to figure out just what exactly happened to Nina at the med school where she and Cassie were both students, but it's immediately clear that it's the kind of incident her lifelong best friend is now warding against.
Secure in her life as a dropout shilling hot beverages and pastries, Cassie lives a stable life until someone from her past re-emerges. Bo Burnham's Ryan Cooper is a self-deprecating pediatric surgeon who likes Cassie enough to drink coffee she spits into as part of their early flirtation. But Ryan’s presence also ignites old traumas, which leads Cassie to set a plan of revenge that will make the people who didn’t believe and tried to discredit Nina, like a stuck-up fellow student (Alison Brie) and the university's dean (Connie Britton), pay dearly.
Mulligan turns in a performance that's near phenomenal as Cassie. You can read into the corner of her mouth her refusal to let her guard down, a cynicism seeping into her every expression. Cassie's actions are righteous but not unequivocally ethical, verging on psychopathic, but Fennell’s script isn’t playing by any pre-established rules of what is "good" feminism.
Meanwhile, Burnham, who came to Sundance two years ago with his directorial debut Eighth Grade, is so charming as Ryan that you understand why Cassie allows her armor to slip around him. He gives a performance that could establish him as the next great rom com lead -- only this isn't a rom com. Except for when it is, another one of Fennell’s savvy ruses. The scene in which Cassie and Ryan dance in a pharmacy to the maligned heiress' quasi-hit is a moment built for memes, saturated in neon pinks and blues.
Fennell has made a movie that’s unabashedly girly, from Cassie’s enviable multicolored manicure to the soundtrack, which also features covers of Britney Spears' "Toxic" and The Weather Girls' "It's Raining Men." (I cannot wait for the soundtrack release.) Promising Young Woman uses aesthetics that usually get written off for being too feminine to its wily advantage, but the movie is anything but soft. Fennell has made something that's angry and borderline cruel. Underneath all the candy hues and catchy tunes, it offers gut punch after gut punch.
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