Film: Promising Young Woman

It’s a shame we need a movie like Promising Young Woman (2020), and an even greater shame we didn’t get one several decades sooner. This chilling thriller stars Carey Mulligan as Cassie Thomas, an aimless med-school dropout who works at a coffee shop. She displays little ambition in life, much to the consternation of the parents (Clancy Brown and Jennifer Coolidge), with whom she still lives. Cassie does have one significant, if unhealthy, past time, however; going out to clubs at night, posing as a vulnerable drunk, and luring seedy men into “helping” her. Invariably, Cassie’s “white knights” aren’t so nice after all and look to take advantage of her sexually, only to lose their nerve when she miraculously sobers up to berate them. It’s clear that something traumatic happened back in med school that set Cassie down this dark path, but we don’t begin to learn what until an old classmate named Ryan (Bo Burnham) encounters Cassie at the coffee shop. When Ryan reveals a former crush on her and gradually starts to charm her out of her suspicious shell, it appears she may have finally met a genuinely nice guy who can help her move on from the event that broke her spirit. But Cassie’s double-life history of teaching lessons to sexual predators may have lasted just long enough to upset her efforts to move forward.

That Promising Young Woman is a polemic, its strategy decidedly didactic, is undeniable—but that doesn’t make it any less powerful a drama, a necessary and hard-hitting look at one of society’s greatest, most pervasive ills. With a razor-sharp focus on its mission, it delivers a tightly structured thriller, leveraging Mulligan’s considerable presence to exceptional effect. After luring the viewer with the intriguing mystery of Cassie’s situation, the film proceeds to detail Cassie’s compelling mission of psychological revenge against the people who ignored, enabled, or committed the long-ago sexual assault that derailed her life and continues to haunt her. Her exploits escalate through a range of variously culpable suspects, providing meaty, well executed supporting roles for various talented players like Alison Brie, Connie Britton, Max Greenfield, Chris Lowell, and Alfred Molina. Its point isn’t subtle, perhaps, but subtlety isn’t something we can afford on this topic, and at any rate the point is resoundingly well made.

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