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Film Review: Promising Young Woman

by A.R. Solar

A disclaimer of sorts: It’s not easy to write honestly about movies that carry a strong #MeToo message and, in this case, one that’s created by a (rightfully) unapologetically direct director who is a woman. This might be especially true when the critic is a man. If he does his job—to tell the good and the bad of an artwork—there will nonetheless be some accusations of bias and sexism. If we can agree that works with good messages can also be bad art, then the following review may be of interest to you.

“Revenge”: That’s the word marketers of the new Carey Mulligan vehicle Promising Young Woman want us to latch onto. After all, revenge is a personal form of war, and all’s fair in that department. “All’s fair,” “anything goes,” “sweet revenge”—these are convenient euphemisms for a film at which everything was thrown to see what would stick. Turns out precious little stuck, but what’s Focus Features supposed to do with it, go straight to VOD and DVD?

Mulligan plays Cassie, a woman who experienced secondary trauma in college and has turned to revenge against sexual offenders as a coping mechanism. 

The tremendous tonal challenges in telling such a story seem lost on writer/director Emerald Fennell (or maybe she simply chose to ignore them). So we’re introduced to character after character with nearly no intellectual lives or interiority, as if they’ve learned everything they know from watching television. (Which verges on disturbing when you consider that Fennell’s day job is showrunning BBC America’s “Killing Eve.”)

Unlike the genre it so readily claims for itself, Promising Young Woman depicts little of the burden which the obsessed, vengeful person carries. Cassie seems casually afflicted with her “hobby,” but never genuinely seethes or stews obsessively.

So, the satisfaction that, for better or worse, the viewer shares with the protagonist—the whole reward of the revenge genre—is wholly missing here. Worse, the script is so lazily composed and the direction so cavalier that hardly 20 frames go by without a predominant phoniness. (How many times can a viewer tolerate the thought that “Nobody talks like that!”) This makes for a difficult trudge of nearly two hours.

Can a #MeToo revenge movie ever succeed, then? Of course, and someone probably ought to accept that challenge—acknowledging that it won’t be easy, and eschewing the idea that being part of an important, righteous social movement makes one immune from making bad art.

the international CRITIQUE rating:

Rating: 1 out of 5.