Illustration by Fenella Gent

CW: discussion of sexual violence and rape

Anyone would go into Promising Young Woman (2020) with high expectations. Its brilliant cast of prestigious actors, four Oscar nominations (including ‘Best Picture’ and ‘Best Director’), and bold premise are certainly eye catching. The film begins with 30-year-old medical school dropout, Cassie Thomas (Carey Mulligan) ensnaring men into taking advantage of her by feigning inebriation and then punishing them accordingly, believing herself to be going against the system that destroyed her best friend, Nina, many years ago. Undoubtedly, director Emerald Fennell knew that tackling issues of sexual assault and date rape, especially in her directorial debut, would be somewhat controversial but I’m not sure she anticipated that two audience members would end up in a shouting match during the film’s first test screening. Following one man yelling “If you don’t like it, you don’t have to stay!”, the other walked out of the theatre. Such polarisation of the audience seems to have bled into online and newspaper reviews, where one can find ratings that oscillate haphazardly from a 2/10 to a 10/10.

Apologies for the disorientation and inevitable spoilers, but the end of the film seems like a good place to start, with many viewers finding it the most disappointing and least satisfying part. Here, instead of the pieces of Cassie’s revenge coming together, the same patriarchal system that Nina fell victim to also strikes the protagonist, albeit in a different way. Fennell’s shocking choice to not let Cassie have the gratifying revenge of Hollywood’s typical thriller formula and letting the police forces have the final moment of glory left audiences feeling bereft of the female empowerment that they expected. In the words of one review: ‘It started out like “yay! feminism warrior” but ended up “we couldn’t be more victims”’.

I, however, disagree and think that, perhaps, this has been one of the most honest portrayals of a woman navigating the justice system in Hollywood cinema thus far. It frustrates viewers that Cassie refuses to fulfil expectations, taking neither a logical or realistic approach of revenge, but it’s a poignant reminder that a woman must often destroy herself completely in the name of justice. In some ways, it would be unrealistic to have a neat ending tied up in a bow and, instead, what Fennell has done is honour the reality of women that live in this system that unrelentingly works against them. Whilst it’s good that there are many elements of Promising Young Woman that do fulfil these expectations of female empowerment, its principal message is a woman searching for a catharsis that she simply might not find in present-day society. It’s genuine and I admire Fennell and Mulligan for their bravery in how they carried it out, most likely realising that it would have some negative reception.

The challenge in tone also presented an issue for audiences. The tonal shifts here can be jarring, even verging on whiplash, with the clash of the confetti coloured palette and the tragic social themes of sexual violence being difficult to reconcile at first. But the discomfort engulfed in a candy coloured nightmare of pop songs and neon pink is what makes this film great. It’s a playful surface but it’s one that yanks the rug out from under the audience. An instrumental version of Britney Spears’ ‘Toxic’ at the beginning of the denouement, where Cassie dresses up as a nurse stripper to seek her revenge on Nina’s rapist at his own bachelor party, is the perfect example of this. A song so emblematic of ‘girly’ or ‘guilty pleasure’ pop culture is reclaimed and weaponised to be just as chilling as the aesthetics one would usually associate with a dark thriller.

It must also be noted that the casting plays a subtle, yet undeniable, role in this idea of surface-level comfort for the audience. Lindsay Graham Ahanonu and Mary Vernieu do a fantastic job of choosing actors like nice-guy comedian, Bo Burnham, as Ryan and The O.C’s Adam Brody as Jerry, whose previous roles make you feel at ease with their presence but whose later sinister twists perfectly encapsulate the film’s message that anyone can be complicit, and anyone can be a predator. In some ways, this casting is the film’s secret weapon to drive home the crushing blow when Ryan, Jerry, and the other ‘nice guys’ turn out to be as irredeemable as the many other sexual assailants in Carrie’s life.

However, perhaps understandably, the use of a teen popstar’s hit song or comedians in a ‘rape-revenge’ film would leave some with a sour watch, and reviews have dubbed the film ‘tone-deaf’ on account of the overriding aesthetic not being conducive to the grave subject matter. In fact, even during the most serious scenes, Fennell’s moments of dark humour often make it almost impossible to resist a smirk, creating an immediate sense of unease for the audience in how they react to the violence in front of them. But isn’t this unease what will, in turn, allow for reflection and progression in society’s understanding of sexual violence? The moments of lightness are what lull the audience into a false sense of security, but what’s important is that Mulligan and Fennell never forget the trauma of Cassie taking out her pain on the patriarchal system that enabled it in the first place. The result is something that is simultaneously dark, funny, heart warming, sad and tragic, and, ultimately, something which escapes the commonplace.

I would also go as far as to say that the sunny aesthetic generated by the film’s colouring and dialogue creates what unfortunately might be a necessary palatability for some people, mainly men, to gain access to the conversation surrounding sexual violence. It serves as a kind of spoonful of sugar for these viewers to feel invited to the conversation which, whilst it shouldn’t be a called-for prerequisite, is opening up the dialogue to those that need to hear it most. It’s a film that everyone needs to show up for and, love it or hate it, it will definitely make you think and spark a needed discussion. As Fennell brilliantly sums it up: “It’s a bitter pill to swallow – but that’s how the conversation starts, isn’t it?”.